NOT QUITE A Nobel Peace Prize winner, but nominee Albert Reynolds is being remembered today for the significant role he played in bringing peace to the island of Ireland.
As leader of Fianna Fáil, he became Taoiseach for the first time in February 1992, a term he started with a declaration that his ultimate focus would be on the Northern Ireland Peace Process.
His determination surprised many commentators at the time because he had rarely spoken – nevermind so passionately – about the Troubles as a minister.
However, his efforts are being lauded today, the credit given to him for the progress which led to the momentous 1994 IRA ceasefire.
Although he did not remark on the Northern Ireland situation during his early career in Cabinet, it was events surrounding the issue that enticed him into politics at the late age of 44.
Born on 3 November 1932 in Roosky, county Roscommon, Reynolds was educated in Summerhill College in Sligo. During the 1950s, he began work with CIE but the glamour and glitz of the showband era soon called and he started to procure dance halls in his local area.
The dance hall was a popular place in the 1960s and Reynolds managed to secure a nice living, investing some of the money earned into other ventures such as a cinema, local newspapers, a pet food company, a bacon factory, a hire purchase firm and a fish-exporting operation.
In 1970, the Arms Crisis kicked off and Charles Haughey and Neil Blaney were removed from office for the alleged import of arms to Northern Ireland for use by the IRA. Both were found not guilty of the charges in court. It is said that Reynolds’ decision to enter politics was solidified during this period.
He was first elected to the Dáil for the Longford/Westmeath constituency in 1977 – a late bloomer at 44 years of age. Between 1979 and 1981, he held the positions of Minister for Posts and Telegraphs and Minister for Transport. During that time, Fianna Fáil said he “revolutionised the telecommunications system”, making it “one of the best in Europe”.
His Cabinet career was varied and in 1982, he became the Minister for Industry and Energy, focusing his energy on the National Grid and the Cork-Dublin gas pipeline.
Another change in 1987 saw him switch to Commerce and then Finance. He reduced personal tax rates for the first time in 20 years and lured 200 businesses to the Financial Services Centre.
Described today as a man who was good at making deals, Reynolds negotiated with the Progressive Democrats following the 1989 election, securing the “temporary little arrangement” of a coalition government.
This turbulent period in Irish politics saw Reynolds take a leadership challenge against Charles Haughey, a move that resulted in his expulsion from Cabinet.
However, the gamble eventually paid off when Charlie retired in early 1992. Reynolds succeeded him, beating out competition from Mary O’Rourke and Michael Woods in the party’s leadership campaign.
But the new Taoiseach’s strained relationship with the PDs’ leader Dessie O’Malley would see the coalition government flounder nine months later over the Beef Tribunal.
The inquiry into the beef processing industry revealed deep conflict between Reynolds and O’Malley who, during evidence to the tribunal, was openly critical of Reynolds’ time as industry and commerce minister and the operation of the export credit scheme.
In his evidence, Reynolds’ reference to O’Malley’s contribution as “dishonest” would collapse the government and an election was called.
It was a risk, but Fianna Fáil would eventually return to power with Labour. Risk-taking was a characteristic of the man as a politician as his former press officer Seán Duignan attests to when discussing billion-pound negotiations with the EU.
Albert is a born gambler – at the track, in business and politics… When the chips are finally down, and there’s nothing more that can be done, he just stands back and watches – fascinated, fatalistic, almost stoic.
But, eventually, it was that that risk-taking that meant he is one of the country’s shortest serving leaders. Before we get to the downfall though, there were his remarkable achievements in the North.
‘Who is afraid of peace?’
On 15 December 1993, the Downing Street Declaration was signed by John Major and Reynolds. The agreement outlined that the constitutional future of Northern Ireland could only be decided by self-determination and that both governments would not encourage any particular outcome. It was the precursor to the Good Friday Agreement.
It wasn’t long before he was shaking hands with Gerry Adams on the steps of government buildings, a massively unprecedented move at the time but his approach – bullish at the time – was one that was maintained by all governments who came after him.
The question that underlined all of his decisions during that time was: “Who is afraid of peace?”
And what had previously seemed impossible came into fruition months later, with an IRA ceasefire announced on 31 August 1994.
His late entry into politics could also have been a factor in the growth of his reputation as a risk-taker.
Recalling a conversation with Reynolds, Duignan recounts:
Early on, he told me: ‘The main thing to remember about being in this job is that you’re here to make decisions, and that involves taking risks… You cannot get all the decisions right, but you’ll have no hope at all if you try to play it safe, and duck taking them… You’ve got to be prepared to take the responsibility and also, if you get it wrong, to take the consequences’. I was soon to learn that Albert Reynolds consistently played for high stakes, was prepared to back his hunch to the limit, and preferred to bet on the nose, rather than each way.
But, ultimately, he was a self-titled deal-maker.
I’m a dealer. Not a wheeler-dealer or a double-dealer – just a dealer. That’s what I do, hard straight dealing. And that’s what I think I can pull off on the North, something they’ll all accept as an even deal.
The Northern Ireland Peace Process was certainly high stakes, and his confidence was backed by commitment and the building of trusting relationships. He forged a close working relationship with Major, despite him being a “reluctant partner”.
“..In many respects he had to be dragged kicking and screaming and it was to Albert Reynolds’ eternal credit that he won him over,” Fergus Finlay, former advisor Dick Spring, told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland today.
He was the most dogged, most persistent, most straightforward and most single-minded person I’ve ever met in terms of the pursuit of an objective.
That sentiment echoes what Mary Holland wrote in the Irish Times in the wake of the IRA and other paramilitary ceasefires 20 years ago:
It has been precisely the skills of a huckster, well, successful entrepreneur – his readiness to take a risk, cut corners, drive a hard deal and, crucially, to back an instinctive hunch with the necessary action – which not only wrested the much longer for ‘complete cessation’ of violence from the IRA, but has since provided, almost single-handed, the momentum to keep the peace process on course.
Looking back over the past 25 years, it is impossible to imagine any other Taoiseach capable of pulling off this outrageous coup de théatre.
But it wasn’t just the bloodshed of the conflict that caused political problems for Reynolds. He also had a number of other controversies to deal with, all while working with a party in which there were a number of strong members he had alienated at the start of his term in office.
He had earned the titled of the ‘Longford Slasher’ because of his tactic of getting rid of eight Cabinet ministers and nine Ministers of State in the biggest reshuffle in Irish history.
“I could have done with a revolving door in this office to deal with all these guys,” he said at the time.
But those men and women – of whom Mary O’Rourke was one – stayed around and became friendly enemies. Some became friends with Bertie Ahern – who had ironically been the only Haughey loyalist that Reynolds retained – the consequences of which would be seen before long.
Ahern needed him to take a misstep though before cashing in on those new-found friendships. And like many who have come after him, the X Case was an immediate headache for Reynolds as he took on the top job.
Despite losing the referendum on whether to roll back on the Supreme Court judgement to allow an abortion if there was a risk of suicide, the government coalition, although damaged, stayed together.
A central figure in that controversy, Attorney General Harry Whelehan, would remain a thorn in their side. He had been re-appointed to the position by Reynolds in 1992 but Tánaiste Dick Spring stayed quiet on the issues he had with it.
But when he was then proposed for the vacant High Court president role, Spring had a decision on his hands.
At this point, Whelehan had been accused of mishandling an attempt to extradite Brendan Smyth, one of the most notorious child abusers in the country, to Northern Ireland where he faced charges. It is also alleged that he was not fully supportive of prosecuting him in Ireland because of the implications for the Catholic Church.
An exposé by Channel 4 was embarrassing for the country and there was disquiet about the government’s support of Whelehan.
Reynolds admitted in the Dáil that he should not have proposed Whelehan for the position but, at that stage, it was too late and Spring took his Labour party out of government.
In November 1994, on resigning as Taoiseach, Reynolds discussed his own approach to his short time leading the country:
There is only one message I want to get across: that I am what I am, and I don’t pretend to be something that I am not. Yes, we all have human failings, but… that’s me, that’s what I have been, that’s what I always will be. Above all, throughout my life in politics and in business, I have been delighted to be a risk taker… because I believe, if you were not a risk taker, you will achieve nothing… the easiest way of life is not to be a risk taker… I am quite happy that, having taken the risks, the successes have far outweighed the failures.
His last words as Taoiseach not only reflected the words of his unscripted resignation but they also highlight how his legacy is remembered today – what he succeeded at was big, monumental and life-changing but there were also elements of his leadership that let him down.
“It’s amazing. You cross the big hurdles, and when you get to the small ones, you get tripped.”
Albert Reynolds is survived by his wife Kathleen Reynolds, their two sons, five daughters and grandchildren.
Quotes taken from One Spin on the Merry-Go-Round by Seán Duignan; Reporting with Christine Bohan