Wednesday 24 July 2019

Obituary: Ted Nealon

Journalist and politician whose guide is a fitting legacy, writes Joseph O'Malley

Ted Nealon pictured with Taoiseach Brian Cowen at the official launch of his book
Ted Nealon pictured with Taoiseach Brian Cowen at the official launch of his book "Tales from the Dail Bar". Photo: Mark Maxwell.

Joseph O'Malley

TED Nealon was one of the very few journalists to succeed in politics, as Geraldine Kennedy, a former editor of the Irish Times, noted on his passing last week, aged 84.

Indeed, no one could have better equipped himself for a future political career than he did. It began in 1981, when he was elected to the Dail on the second attempt, following a defeat in 1977. And he held his Sligo seat for 16 years, contesting six successive general elections before retiring in 1997. He served mainly as a backbencher, and for a time as a junior minister in Garret FitzGerald's Fine Gael-Labour coalition (1982-1987).

Ted Nealon had first fully mastered both the print and later the electronic media, before changing careers in the mid-Seventies. As a print journalist who started his national career with the Irish Press in the Fifties, he later became editor of the Sunday Review, which featured John Healy's Backbencher column. This then anonymous column offered a new and novel form of political coverage, reliant on a provocative cocktail of informed party gossip and calculated government leaks.

In the late Sixties, as one of the presenters – along with Brian Farrell – of RTE's Seven Days current affairs programme, Nealon developed a national profile in a period that saw frequent conflicts between the broadcasters and the Fianna Fail-led government.

One major controversy arose in 1968 when analysis by Seven Days – based on research by political scientists Basil Chubb and David Thornley – suggested Fianna Fail would gain hugely from the proposed change to the PR voting system. Voters subsequently rejected the Constitutional amendment. Another programme, dealing with illegal money lending, led to a judicial inquiry into the programme's authenticity. However, Ted Nealon's most remarkable performance – for which he received a television award – was delivered on the night of the general election results count in 1973. There, his ability to call, correctly, the seat outcomes in tight electoral battles surpassed the best efforts of RTE's computers. His gift reflected, as Basil Chubb remarked, "his encyclopaedic and detailed knowledge of people, places, local events and opinions".

Out of that personal triumph came his decision, with the Institute of Public Administration, to produce a parliamentary directory, with full details of general election results, with analysis and biographies of deputies and senators. The series has now become the 'bible' of political statistics. Nealon's Guide serves as both his fitting and lasting legacy, reflecting his two consuming life interests, the media and politics.

After a brief period as government press secretary in 1976 to the Fine Gael-Labour coalition, he became the party's press officer. There, along with Peter Prendergast – Fine Gael's new general secretary – he became one of the key backroom figures who laid the foundations for the party's remarkable electoral success in 1981. A year later, he was appointed as junior minister for Arts and Culture, where he proved to be, as Garret FitzGerald noted, "an energetic and creative minister".

His wife Jo, son Fergal and daughter Louise survive him.

Irish Independent

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