Neil Blaney: Past and Future
As speculation grows about an imminent return to Fianna Fail, Neil Blaney talks to Olivia O'Leary
NEIL BLANEY ASSURED CHARLES HAUGHEY THREE YEARS AGO that he did not want to take over as leader of Fianna Fail.
It was just after the abortive O'Malley coup. Charlie Haughey may have been quite pleased to get such an assurance from anyone, inside or outside the party.
Blaney and a group of his supporters were negotiating the terms of his support for Haughey's forthcoming minority government. "I want you to know, with six members of my organisation present," said Blaney, "that I don't want your job and I won't want it in the future. And I want you to know that, before we talk: about my returning to the party."
They were talking about Haughey's stance on Northern Ireland "or rather his lack of a stance on it," says Blaney wryly. With the agreement that there would be a more aggressive line taken on Northern Ireland, someone remarked that there was little now to divide the two organisations and that they should think of amalgamating. Three cautious years later, Blaney indicates that, given the right deal, he and his organisation would favour rejoining Fianna Fail.
Neil Blaney doesn't accept that Fianna Fail rules require that he should apply first for membership. ''There are no rules in Fianna Fail for the admission of an organisation. How can you put a two or three thousand member organiisation into another organisation under rules which were drawn up for the admission of individuals into a local cumann? It has to be that largely everybody who would be associated with me in the organisation in Donegal, and outside of it, would be found their rightful place in the new scheme of things. Only that way will it work."
As for his supporters, Blaney says: ''Their attitude seems to be that they would be favourably disposed to its being done. But how is it to be done properly? It'll take quite a time to work it out."
And Blaney himself: "I suppose it would be only natural that if everything were smoothed out, and if it could be done well and properly, I'm sure my answer then would surely be that, yes, I would like that."
And wouldn't he be on the front bench, a minister in the next Fianna Fail government? "I wouldn't say that, but I know my people are very much on for that. If someone said there's not a hope in hell of that being on, then the reading I am getting from them would be very different, because they presuppose that if we are all back together, I would just resume as though fifteen years hadn't passed. That is the presupposition of people who support me and their wish and the wish of a great number of people in Fianna Fail who want this rift tobe solved."
So a cabinet seat is a possibility. "It's certainly a possiibility."
Would he enjoy running a department again? "Sure, I probably would."
FIANNA FAIL, SAYS BLANEY, ALWAYS WANTED HIM BACK. "IT was Jack Lynch who jettisoned me out of the party. Jack Lynch's wish to remove me started in 1969 when he was becoming his own man', which he never was. Having made him a leader, by helping him, he made every effort to downngrade both of us. He tried to move Boland and I to lesser departments. "
Lynch had commented to a mutual acquaintance at a post election party in 1969 that "Neil is difficult and Kevin is impossible."
Lynch tried to move Blaney into Local Government from Agriculture, and Boland into Social Welfare from Local Government. Blaney said he'd put four hard years in in Agriculture but he wasn't going to move so that his leader could have his head on a plate after an election that
Fianna Fail had only barely won. "He had us both under the hammer, he wanted to throw us both to the wolves."
Lynch, he says, was "a devious man."
After the '69 election, the daily unrest in Northern Ireeland was the main issue concerning the cabinet, and after the Bombay Street catastrophe (in August '69), Blaney believed the Irish army should be sent over the border. "I said so at cabinet. The majority there would have agreed. After Bombay Street, that would have been their clear view ."
There were groups, like the Citizens Defence Group, coming from the North asking for help - including guns. They came through him, said Blaney, and he passed them on to the Taoiseach and others. Were they promised guns?
Blaney says he remembers one occasion after August '69.
"A group came from meeting the Taoiseach and they were very happy that they were getting what they wanted, inncluding the arms. I had become disillusioned as to what was or wouldn't be available to them, or what help they were going to get. It was quite evident that we had turned our backs on them and that we just didn't want to know. When these people came out full of hope, I was inclined to put them in a more realistic frame of mind rather than send them back to Derry or Belfast saying everything is fine we're getting backing of every kind."
He and other ministers were concerned at the time that Jack Lynch was turning his back on the North. Jim Gibbons expressed that concern, too, he says. Blaney has always believed, and believed it had always been Fianna Fail policy, that force could not be ruled out if the circumstances in Northern Ireland demanded.
Does he still believe that, would he expect Charlie Haughey to believe it? "Well, I would be appalled at the notion that anything we could use to try to reduce the tennsion we shouldn't use ... including the use of force to abate force. I hope Haughey would agree with that. I couldn't imagine anyone not agreeing with that. We did send guns to Dundalk, don't forget."
The night Ballymurphy exploded (April '70), said Blaney, he rang Jim Gibbons, Minister for Defence, and got him to ring General MacEoin, Chief of Staff, and authorise the sending to the North of trucks at McKee barracks, loaded with rifles for the arming of Northern nationalists should the need arise. The trucks were sent via Dundalk, where, says Blaney, they stopped because word came through that the crisis was over. But the trucks had been loaded for some weeks in preparation and Jim Gibbons showed no reluctance to send them on their way, he said.
"There was an ongoing thing to procure arms for the protection of citizens in the North and Jim Gibbons' innvolvement legalised such importation. There was at the time, because We hadn't gone in with the army, the feeling that supplying them with army equipment might blow the gaffe." The feeling was, he said, that assistance should be given covertly, "that we should get arms that were not army stock, acquiring the weapons needed without the eyes of the world seeing that they were coming from the governnment. This was despite ample surplus suitable in army stock that were perfectly good."
The army had changed from Enfield to Springfield rifles and there were thousands of weapons available. The guns which had got as far as Dundalk on the night of the Ballyymurphy blow-up, he said, were army issue.
"The cabinet discussed the possible embarrassment that the use of standard army equipment to arm the citizens in the North might cause. The implication was that the arms should be found from untraceable sources. Jack Lynch was at cabinet at the time of that discussion."
And the cabinet sub-committee set up to monitor developments in the North included Paudge Brennan, Padraig Faulkner (Blaney says he doesn't remember being a member but he must have been), and Charles Haughey, who as Minister for Finance had charge of the £100,000 fund for relief of Northers; Ireland. Was that sub-committee given authority to import arms? "I would have been surrprised if that sub-committee hadn't been looking into the importation of arms." So any attempt to import arms would have been legal? "It was all done with the say -so of Jim Gibbons."
There was no basis for the accusation of importing arms, because it hadn't happened, he said. "He (Jack Lynch) came seeking my resignation on the basis of information that I had been involved in the importation of arms. I flatly batted that down and said 'no resignation', because I hadn't been involved in the importation of arms, because we hadn't succeeded in the importation of arms at that time."
So he denied any involvement in importing arms? "I said I was sorry I hadn't succeeded." He went on: "What I was saying at the time was that there hadn't yet been (an importation of arms) and I was sorry there wasn't."
Did he think Jack Lynch set them up? "I think he let us all down and I think the British government pressed him to do it."
LYNCH FIRST ASKED HAUGHEY AND BLANEY TO RESIGN ON APRIL 30 and spent the next morning closetted with the British Ambassador. He arrived late for a cabinet meeting. "He reported his trauma of the day before and how he'd had a problem with his two ministers and that he had been with both of them and they had denied (involvement in the immportation of arms) ... so that it must have been that we were sacked on the basis that we had imported arms, which was untrue - that we were trying to import them would have been nearer the mark -- but that we had denied having done so."
Then Lynch went on with cabinet business. Kevin Boland thought that was the end of the matter and, says Blaney, wanted to go up to tell Charlie Haughey, who was recoverring from an accident in hospital, that it was all over. "I said to Kevin, it's not over, it's beginning because half an hour into the meeting I'd had a call from Sheila Kelly to say that James had been arrested two hours earlier, and was being interrogated in the Bridewell."
Lynch refused to discuss the matter further with the cabinet even though many of the ministers there, including George Colley, who sat there open-mouthed, hadn't known anything about the requested resignations and wanted to be told more.
The involvement of the Belgian hotelier, Albert Luykx, who was to become another defendant at the Arms Trial, was "because of his being a continental and his knowledge of the continent, or associates, or business people, or arms dealers ... as I say from his being a continental. He would have been a likely boy to say who should have been conntacted where." Luykx was a friend of Blaney's and an accquaintance of all the others, having been politically involved with Fianna Fail for a long time. Blaney didn't know if he had been asked for advice or to act as an agent, or if he had paid over £8 ,000 for guns for which he was never reimbursed. Blaney said it wouldn't surprise him. "If Albert was helping along these people to meet the dealers, I wouldn't have been surprised. He might have been a courier. But I don't know."
Didn't he ever ask him?
"No, I wouldn't have asked him because it wasn't imporrtant who was doing what. Importance was what was happenning above and what we were going to be able to do about it. "
But why didn't Blaney help his friend and colleagues in court by corroborating their contention that the importaation of arms had official sanction?
"Why did neither the prosecution or the defence ever put me in the witness box and ask me to give evidence. Nobody did."
And did he offer?
"I don't know if offer is the word. It was so obvious that I should have been in the witness box. I attended every moment of every session of both the abortive trial and the trial and I am still wondering why I wasn't called. If the defence didn't call me, why the prosecution didn't call me, not even to put me on the spot, as they might have thought."
Didn't Luykx ever tell him why he wasn't called? "No, I never asked him. Why should I?
"What might explain why I wouldn't be asking anybody anything afterwards is this: Before the serving of the book of evidence there was a getting-together of all the defence counsel to decide what was to be the plan of defence. My advisors were at variance with the others, to say the least of it."
Blaney's advisors contested the charge in the District Court and he was not returned for trial. After that he was out of the main action, he said. He feels the others were ill served by their lawyers. He felt that no defence should have been put forward, other than for counsel for all the defenndants to say "There's your charge, prove it." None of the others contested being returned for trial. At least two might not have been returned for trial.
The lawyers wanted a showpiece trial, he says. "A bloody lawyers trial, if you like."
And how did he feel about Lynch at the time? "I had the feeling that he was confused, that he still is, that he should never have been where he was; and the fact that I had a fair hand in putting him where he was didn't make me any more happy."
Blaney believes that it was no coincidence that Liam Cosgrave, through the Irish Independen-t, received an anonyymous letter tipping him off to the arms crisis. Being pushed by Liam Cosgrave would allow Lynch to explain why he was sacking Blaney when he didn't sack him the week beefore, but the real reason for the sacking, indicates Blaney, was the British Ambassador's visit.
THERE HAVE BEEN CONSTANT ALLEGATIONS OVER THE YEARS that money from the Northern Distress Fund was used to help set up the IRA. Blaney says help was given to the Citiizens Defence Committees "many of which fused into being the nucleus of the Provisional IRA." It wasn't always clear when the changeover came and it's possible that people who thought they were continuing to help the committees were contributing to the IRA, he says.
Would it concern him if such money had found its way to the IRA?
"It would not have concerned me if money at my dissposal had gone to the IRA or any money that had gone to help in the North at the time. The attitude was anything, any cost, to help."
How does he feel about the Provos now?
"I'll give you an honest appraisal that few people are ready to give. If it weren't for the emergence of the IRA, the nationalist aspiration would have been suppressed and buried before now, and there would have been the 'normaality' that they're always talking about up there. I don't have any doubt about that. If people don't like the Proviisional IRA, still an honest appraisal must be that if they hadn't emerged, the nationalist people would have been hammered and battered into the ground as so often before.
"They are the concrete evidence of the nationalist aspiraation being alive. It would have been suppressed without them. The fact that the aspiration hasn't been driven underrground since 1970 is allied to the fact that there is an orgaanisation, the Provisional IRA, that has prevented it being driven underground and this phoney 'normality' hasn't returned."
So how does he feel when IRA killings of UDR or RUC men are condemned, even by Charlie Haughey, the leader of the party he may now rejoin?
"When there's a Provisional IRA shooting of a UDR or RUC man, I regret it more than those most vocal in their condemnation. But I regret more what brought it about, the institutionalised violence in the North. The whole scene is obscene."
Blaney says that he's been happier with the Northern policy Fianna Fail have pursued under Charlie Haughey and that he tried to make sure Haughey didn't resign the leaderrship in face of pressure. In January 1983, he rang Haughey at the request of his advisors in the parliamentary party to persuade him to stay on. At ten o'clock these advisors had come to him and said, "The man's going. We can do no more. Can you do anything?" Blaney did.
"I just laid into him," says Blaney. "I told him you can' resign. There is no one else who can command a majority. And you'll have to come back, anyway, because nobody else will be able to command a majority to lead Fianna Fail."
Did he feel Haughey had been treated badly since the Arms Trial?
"No, I honestly don't. He didn't treat others as harshly as he should. If he had, his travail over the years since 1979 wouldn't have been as bad.
"Was Haughey treated fairly! Was I treated fairly? Look where 1 sit fifteen years later ... and' I wasn't even tried." •