HOW DO WE measure the legacy of a former leader? Do we look at risks taken or the number of decisions that they made during their time in office?
The passing of Albert Reynolds today has provoked politicians and commentators to pose these questions about his legacy. Now, Reynolds was an immensely controversial figure who split his party and the nation as he used his combative style to drive through his policy agenda – but he was also one of the few political leaders that we have had who was not averse to taking risks.
This attitude of throwing caution to the wind led Reynolds to take the risks that were needed in forging ahead with the Northern Ireland peace process – and also gave him the gumption, after leading his party to one of its worst defeats, to form a coalition with his foe Dick Spring, leader of the Labour party.
A unique combination of straight-talking and charting a course
It wasn’t all plain sailing, though, and the very strengths that made Reynolds as attractive to many as a leader would end up becoming one of the main reasons why his government collapsed in one of the most bizarre fashions in Irish history. However, today I want to focus on his achievements and his huge contribution to Irish life.
Reynolds had a unique combination of straight-talking and charting a course. An important event during the early 1980s that I think says a lot about the man came about after Charles Haughey had survived his third leadership challenge. Reynolds had the courage and the conviction to tell his leader that if the Fianna Fain party debated this issue again, he would not be supporting him. At a time when skulduggery was in vogue and secret deals were rife within Irish politics, Reynolds displayed a great deal of character in breaking with the pack and taking a direct approach with a man who had the power to end his political career.
Reynolds stayed to true to his word in 1991 when he resigned as the Minister for Finance and publicly called for Haughey to resign as Taoiseach. The significance of a one-time ally walking out of government and declaring his lack of confidence in Haughey’s ability to lead the country was critical in giving those within the Fianna Fail party who wanted a change a credible alternative leader.
When his moment came, in February 1992, to take on the top job one of his publicly stated priorities was to end the violence in Northern Ireland. His work on this file will be stated frequently over the next few days and rightly so. As I sit here in Belfast writing this column, there are no British soldiers patrolling the streets, paramilitaries no longer conduct massive bombing campaigns, and we have a devolved power-sharing government. We are at this moment because of the leadership of people like Albert Reynolds.
His fingerprints are all over the peace process
The fact that he was able to publicly negotiate with Sinn Fein seems trivial by today’s standards but in the early 1990s it was such a big risk for a sitting Taoiseach to take. A lesser man would have flinched when Adams extended his hand on that day in 1994, but Reynolds, recognising the importance of the moment, embraced him as leader whom he knew could help stop the violence. His signature may not have been on either the Good Friday or Saint Andrews Agreements but his fingerprints are all over both documents.
I remember an occasion when I had the pleasure of meeting him in 2006 outside the GPO. At the time Northern Ireland was in a sense of never-ending gridlock and it looked as if nothing would ever happen. A keen observer of the peace process, Reynolds told me with such confidence that Sinn Fein would endorse the PSNI and the DUP would agree to power-sharing at some point in the near future. Just a year later, that is exactly what happened as devolution was restored in Northern Ireland.
Reynolds did have failures as a leader and politician, but that is for another day. The fact that people are not dying on the streets of Ireland due to the Troubles is largely down to people like Albert Reynolds stepping up to the plate and taking risks.
Peace in Northern Ireland is no small achievement and his work on this alone guarantees him a place in the history books. If his legacy is anything, let it be that the leaders we have today display the same level of courage and tenacity as he did during his two-and-a-half year tenure as Taoiseach.
Dr David McCann is a researcher at the University of Ulster.