End of the Line for the Blaney Dynasty: Three generations in Donegal politics

Donegal Democrat

Niall Blaney’s decision not to run in the forthcoming general election for personal reasons means that for the first time in over 80 years, the Blaney name will not appear on a general election ballot paper in Donegal.

Niall’s grandfather Neal, born in 1893, fought in the Old IRA as a commander during the War of Independence, and was recruited to run for the newly formed Fianna Fáil as the party moved on from the civil war and entered the world of constitutional politics. He was first elected to the 5th Dáil in 1927. He held the seat until 1937, when he lost it due to constituency boundary changes. Neal did manage a seat in the 3rd Seanad though, and won back his Dáil seat in 1943.

Neal Blaney died on 30 October 1948, shortly after holding his seat yet again in the 1948 election to the 13th Dáil. His son, Neil T Blaney, took the seat in the byelection on 7 December 1948. Those were different times, when byelections took only weeks to organise.

Neil’s career really took off when de Valera made him the first minister from Donegal, putting him in charge of posts and telegraphs. He also served as a minister under Sean Lemass and Jack Lynch.

Blaney was always a controversial figure. The respected fromer civil servant TK Whitaker recently recounted how, when Sean Lemass met with Northern Ireland prime minister Terence O’Neill in 1967, the northerner told the taoiseach that he regretted the North only had six counties, and did not include his favourite Ulster county, Donegal.

‘Oh”, Lemass joked, ‘you can have Donegal if you take Blaney with it.”

By 1969, Neil T Blaney was flying high. The first Donegalman appointed to the cabinet, he had served in serveal senior portfolios. Within Fianna Fáil, his canvassing team were famously known at the Lough Swilly Shock Troops, such was their impact when called in to deliver byelections around the country for the party.

Blaney’s profile as a minister from a border county made him a natural choice when the government set up a cabinet subcommittee to organise emergency assistance and relief as Northern Ireland began to implode.

The other members of the subcommittee were Charles Haughey, Pádraig Faulkner and Joseph Brennan.

Taoiseach Jack Lynch took little interest in the work of the subcommittee, and after an initial meeting, Faulkner and Brennan seem to have left Haughey and Blaney to their own devices. A £100,000 fund was set up to provide relief to nationalist civilians forced out of their homes, and Haughey was given sole authority over this money.

In the Spring of 1970, Special Branch detectives received information of a plot to import arms for Northern nationalists, and passed the information to Jack Lynch. However, Lynch took no action until the leader of the opposition, Liam Cosgrave learned of the allegations and pressed the Taoiseach to take action.

Haughey and Blaney were sacked by Lynch on May 6 when they refused to resign. Social welfare minister Kevin Boland resigned from the government in protest at the sackings, adamant (as were the accused) that Jack Lynch and most of the Cabinet knew about the plan to import arms all along.

Haughey and Blaney went on trial in Dublin, together with an Irish Army intelligence officer, Captain James Kelly, a Belfast republican leader named John Kelly and Belgian businessman and former National Socialist Albert Luykx, who had allegedly agreed to use his contacts to acquire the weapons. All charges against Blaney were later dropped and he was not tried. The trial collapsed a week later. The other defendants were cleared at a subsequent trial.

The following year, Lynch subsequently moved against Blaney so as to isolate him in the party. He was defeated in a vote for the position of joint honorary treasurer at the 1971 Ard Fheis, then expelled from the parliamentary party after he abstained on a no-confidence motion. In 1972 he was was expelled from the Fianna Fáil party for ‘conduct unbecoming’.

As the dust cleared, Kevin Boland tried to persuade Blaney to join a new party, Aontacht Éireann, but the Donegalman declined. Instead, he contested all subsequent elections as Independent Fianna Fáil. Independent Fianna Fáil never registered as a political party – the name was never more than an informal one, reflecting Blaney’s distance from the party, but his inability to go the final step and set up a rival party. His opt-expressed soundbite that he did not leave Fianna Fáil, instead Fianna Fáil left him, summed up his attitude.

Throughout the 1970s there were frequent calls for his re-admittance to Fianna Fáil, and equally vocal opposition, often from Fianna Fáil members in Donegal. A sure sign of the silly season was the annual appearance of a ‘Blaney to rejoin Fianna Fáil?” story in a Sunday paper in August, filling the news pages with speculation and rumour on a quiet Sunday at a time of year when there was traditionally little to report.

In 1979, the European parliament was directly elected for the first time, and Blaney ran. He managed to top the poll in the Connacht-Ulster constituency, a remarkable feat for an independent candidate in such a vast constituency. He narrowly lost the European seat in the 1984 election, but returned again in the 1989 EU elections.

Throughout this time, Blaney also held his Dáil seat, until his death from cancer at the age of 73 on 8 November 1995 in Dublin.

Neil’s brother Harry took up the family standard on the death of his brother, but was defeated on his first attempt by Cecilia Keaveney in the 1996 byelection that followed Neil’s death. But he took a seat the following year in he general election, becoming a member of the 28th Dáil. Harry served only one term as a TD, and retired in 2002. He was one of a group of independent TDs to support the FF/PD coalition, along with Tom Gildea, Jackie Healy Rae and Mildred Fox.

The Harry Blaney bridge, linking the Rosguill and Fanad peninsulas across Mulroy Bay at a cost of €20 million, was part of the price of his support for the government. It was opened by Brian Cowen in 2009.

More controversially, Harry demanded a referendum on abortion in return for his support. Although his home constituency of Donegal North East recorded the highest Yes vote in the State in the referendum, it was voted down nationwide.

On Harry’s retirement, there was some uncertainty over who should take up the family mantle. Niall Blaney, Harry’s son, eventually emerged as the standard bearer, and won a seat in both the 2002 and 2007 electoral contests.

In July 2006, Niall Blaney and Fianna Fáil made their peace, although the decision was not without controversy. The merger between the two organisations was opposed by other members of the Blaney family, including all seven children of Neil Blaney and his widow Eva who issued a damning press release castigating the Fianna Fáil party and disassociating themselves from any ‘treaty’.

[As it turned out, there was a Blaney on the ballot paper in 2011, as MacDara Blaney (son of Neil) ran as an independent candidate in Donegal Northeast under the New Vision banner. His brother Eamonn also ran in Dublin…]