WITH over 125 years of public involvement, the Dillon family of Ballaghadereen were involved in every Irish political movement from Repeal of the Union with O’Connell to the start of the application to join the EEC.
John Blake Dillon was a member of O’Connell’s Repeal Association, joined the Young Irelanders and set up The Nation newspaper with Charles Gavan Duffy and Thomas Davis. He started the National Association and was elected MP for Tipperary in 1865. His son, John Dillon, focused mainly on the Land Question, for which he served four separate prison terms. He clashed openly with Parnell when he felt the Irish Party was concentrating on Home Rule and moving away from the Land Question. He became leader of the Anti-Parnellites following the Kitty O’Shea divorce but in 1900 gave way to Redmond to facilitate the reunification of the party.
He opposed many of the Land Acts because he felt they were too conciliatory to the landlords, opposed the British war effort and Redmond’s Volunteers and spoke out strongly against British policy after 1916 and in favour of the bravery of the rebels.
In the 1918 election, when the Irish Party were overwhelmed by Sinn Fein, he lost his Mayo East seat to Eamonn De Valera. This was one of four constituencies that De Valera contested. There followed a 14-year gap until his son James Dillon was elected an Independent TD for Donegal in 1932. Ironically, one of his first actions in the new Dáil was to vote for the election of De Valera as president of the Executive Council.
He became a central figure in Irish political life, a powerful orator, noted debater and a man never afraid to adhere to unpopular ideas. Shortly after his election, he helped found the Centre Party. The following year this amalgamated with Cumann na nGaedheal and the Army Comrades Association to form Fine Gael. Dillon then changed constituencies to Monaghan, where he remained for all his time in public life. During the Second World War, he opposed the policy of neutrality. He was the only TD who advocated that Ireland join the war on the side of the Allies and was expelled from Fine Gael, even though he was deputy leader.
When the Inter-Party Government was formed in 1948, he became Minister for Agriculture as an independent. After the 1951 election, he rejoined Fine Gael and when they returned to power in 1954, he was again appointed to agriculture. He was elected leader of Fine Gael in 1959, 17 years after being expelled because of his views on neutrality.
In the 1961 election, all the parties had new leaders. Apart from Dillon, Lemass led Fianna Fáil and Corish led Labour. Fine Gael won six extra seats and Labour four but in spite of losing seven seats, Lemass retained power with a minority government. The 1969 election gave Fianna Fáil an extra two seats and a majority of one and Dillon resigned as party leader.
James Dillon, a dominant figure in Irish politics for four decades, who came back to become leader of the party from which he had been expelled and who narrowly failed to lead them into government, resigned as leader of Fine Gael on April 21, 1965 – 47 years ago this week.