Obituary: Neil Blaney

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Though most widely known for the infamous Arms Trial in 1970 which followed his and Charles Haughey's ejection from the Irish cabinet by the Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, Neil Blaney had a marathon political career that spanned almost 50 years.

Blaney's name became synonymous with an unbending Irish republican viewpoint in whatever forum he was in, which was entirely consistent with his background. His father, Neal Blaney, had been in the IRA during the Independence struggle and in 1927 became a Fianna Fail TD (MP) himself when it was formed by Eamon de Valera after splitting off from Sinn Fein.

Neil Blaney took the Donegal seat vacated by his father's death in 1948 and emerged as one of the party's finest organisers. By his mid-thirties he was serving as a cabinet minister, first under de Valera and from 1959 under the reforming Sean Lemass. By the mid- Sixties Blaney had emerged as one of the four most dynamic members of the government.

As Local Government minister he was responsible for urban redevelopment programmes, moving inner-city slum tenement dwellers to new Dublin estates, in the process erecting Dublin's first high-rise housing. He was also behind schemes that made big improvements in rural water supplies. At by-elections he was the party's organisation expert, backed up by a mobile army of canvassers. Reporters such as Brendan OhEithir dubbed them "The Donegal Mafia", describing their arrival in rural areas, heralded by the screeching of car tyres and vehicles full of sharp-suited young Donegal men in dark glasses.

In 1966 Blaney entered the Fianna Fail leadership contest, but withdrew under pressure from Lemass, who backed the eventual winner, Jack Lynch. Such was Blaney's presence by then that Lynch was unable to move him from Agriculture to another department.

When the Northern Ireland conflict erupted in 1969, Blaney made a series of forceful speeches attacking the British handling of the crisis, repeatedly underlining Dublin's warning that it "cannot, and will not, stand idly by" in the face of wide-scale attacks on Catholic areas.

Blaney was credited with planning the importation of arms for relief of Catholic areas in Northern Ireland, an idea strongly urged by Northern nationalist leaders fearful of their community's future amid the burning of Catholic areas in the summer of 1969. Blaney and Charles Haughey, as finance minister, were members of a cabinet sub-committee set up to monitor events in the North while Haughey was put in charge of funds for the relief of distress among Northern nationalists.

Though some involved in the planning were against giving weapons to people outside the control of the Irish army, the differences over the policy were clear from the fact that Northern Catholics were by September 1969 being given training at Irish Army camps in Donegal.

The importation of weapons from Antwerp to Dublin was set for April 1970, but came unstuck when the Irish Special Branch intervened to block it. Lynch was told two days later and on 5 May Haughey and Blaney were sacked from the cabinet.

Blaney and Haughey denied knowledge of the arms importation part of the venture and were acquitted after Ireland's trial of the century. Their stance was problematic for their three co-accused, who maintained that they were co-operating with Government policy.

The affair led to Blaney's departure from the party in 1971, but his machine went loyally en masse with him. Besides Blaney's Dail position they retained a number of local council seats. He declined to joinmoves to form a new national party, but carried on a half-way house under the "Independent Fianna Fail" label in his native Donegal, which took a second Dail seat in 1976.

Blaney's victory in the 1979 European elections, drawing an enormous 81,000 first preferences, showed his undiminished strength. In 1982, in a fierce speech in the European Parliament, he strongly objected to any endorsement of Britain's Falklands policy which he denounced as a continuation of Britain's colonialist past.

From 1982 Blaney gave Dail support to Fianna Fail governments. But despite almost annual calls from delegates to the party's ard fheis, Fianna Fail never invited the most unbending of republican voices back into the party.

Alan Murdoch

Neil Blaney, politician, farmer, hotelier: born Rossnakill, Co Donegal 29 October 1922; member, Donegal County Council 1948-57; TD (MP) for Donegal North-East 1948-95; MEP for Connacht-Ulster 1979-94; Minister for Posts and Telegraphs March-December 1957; Minister for Local Government 1957- 66; Minister for Agriculture 1966-70; married Eva Corduff (five sons; two daughters); died Dublin 8 November 1995.