TODAY MARKS THE 22nd anniversary of Albert Reynolds’ election as Taoiseach. He is regularly lauded as the leader who made big strides for peace in Northern Ireland and helped create the Celtic Tiger, yet despite these achievements his government collapsed in what is now regarded as one of the most bizarre moments in Irish politics.
Reynolds was in office less than three years, yet his legacy still lives on today, so just what should we remember about one the country’s shortest serving leaders?
As he came to office, Reynolds did two remarkable things: the first was declare to a stunned press gallery that his number one priority as Taoiseach would be pursuing the peace process in Northern Ireland. Throughout his entire time as minister, Reynolds had made next to no comments on the Troubles in Northern Ireland and his declaration that this initiative and not the economy would take precedence shocked many political commentators at that time.
Downing Street Declaration
Despite this initial shock about Reynolds’ early statements, he quickly put an end to doubts about his determination end violence on streets of Northern Ireland. Through working with his British counterpart, John Major, the two governments agreed the Downing Street Declaration in December 1993 which had at its heart the right that the constitutional future of Northern Ireland could only be decided by self-determination and that both governments would not encourage any particular outcome. This document formed the basis of what would become the Good Friday Agreement.
Not content to simply stop at the declaration, Reynolds was determined to break even more new ground. In an attempt to bolster John Hume’s attempts at dialogue and to ensure that the IRA gave up violence for good, Reynolds became the first Taoiseach to publicly shake the hand of Gerry Adams on the steps of government buildings. While this would be considered mild by today’s standards, this move was genuinely radical and political risky – but, in his typically bullish style, Reynolds made this change with gusto and without any apology. It should be noted that no government since has altered Reynolds basic approach to the Northern Ireland situation.
Outside of Northern Ireland, Reynolds also oversaw vast improvements in the Irish economy. During his tenure, growth steadily rose from a lacklustre 1.9 per cent of GNP to over 6 per cent by the time he left office. He was also a skilled negotiator in Europe as he helped secure £8 billion in structural funds to help improve the country’s infrastructure.
Dealing with coalition partners
However, outside of the achievements in the economy and Northern Ireland were deep flaws in the way he dealt with his coalition partners and some of his colleagues within Fianna Fail. On the day he became Taoiseach, Reynolds embarked upon the biggest reshuffle of a cabinet in Irish history as in the space of 30 minutes he sacked eight cabinet ministers and nine ministers of state. Earning him the title ‘the Longford Slasher’ he happily told his press secretary, Sean Duignan, “I could have done with a revolving door in this office to deal with all these guys.”
When people like Mary O’Rourke challenged him on his decision to remove her from the cabinet he simply said “nothing personal, you just backed the wrong horse”. This process created many new enemies for the Taoiseach and helped his main rival, Bertie Ahern, to gain friends. The full consequences of this reshuffle would not become apparent until December 1994.
Then there was his relationship with his two coalition partners in the Progressive Democrats and the Labour party. Reynolds seemed unable to adjust to the new reality that the days of Fianna Fail governing alone were long over and that viewing some coalitions as what he called a ‘temporary little arrangement’ just ensured instability within his government. The fact that he presided over the walk-out of two political parties in two years demonstrates his inability to form close working relationships with either Des O’Malley or Dick Spring. The negotiating skills that brought him success in Northern Ireland and Europe seemed to leave him when it came to dealing with his coalition partners.
This flaw in his leadership style was ultimately his downfall, as the Labour party pulled out of government over his appointment of Harry Whelehan as Attorney General in December 1994 ending not just his time as Taoiseach but also the leader of Fianna Fail. In the space of just a week, Reynolds had to watch as John Bruton became Taoiseach and Bertie Ahern succeeded him as leader of the party.
Just how should we remember Albert Reynolds’ career? He was a Taoiseach who was prepared to take big risks to achieve a goal, but this drive to reach the end destination made him disregard key colleagues in his party and government whom he needed to govern effectively. His achievements in Northern Ireland are real and enduring to this day but – as he said himself it was the ‘small hurdles’ in which he got himself tripped up. Had he been just a bit more consultative then his government might have last longer than just two and half years.
Dr David McCann is a researcher at the University of Ulster.