Reaching out to republicans and loyalists

Former taoiseach respected in Northern Ireland by both sides

John Hume: the SDLP leader briefed Mr Reynolds, telling him that the broad philosophy of Hume-Adams could only have a chance if the British and Irish governments bought into it. Photograph: Joe St Leger/The Irish Times

John Hume: the SDLP leader briefed Mr Reynolds, telling him that the broad philosophy of Hume-Adams could only have a chance if the British and Irish governments bought into it. Photograph: Joe St Leger/The Irish Times

Fri, Aug 22, 2014, 14:57

Albert Reynolds prided himself on having a hard-nosed political philosophy that he successfully brought to Northern Ireland and the peace process.

When Reynolds succeeded Charles Haughey as taoiseach in 1992, he set himself two goals – one was economic growth, jobs and reducing emigration, the other was “to bring peace to Ireland”.

Whatever about the economy, many thought his peace process objective was fanciful considering that the Troubles were in their 23rd year and there seemed no prospect of an end in sight.

In a subsequent speech to the Institute of British and Irish Studies (Ibis), Reynolds said the media viewed him as a “minority of one”, but the media were wrong, he said, “because my wife [Kathleen] supported me if no one else did.”

Insider knowledge

Reynolds though had some insider knowledge. One of the first people to see him was Haughey adviser Martin Mansergh, who briefed him on the Hume-Adams talks of the early 1990s and the real possibilities they held out.

SDLP leader John Hume also briefed him, telling him that the broad philosophy of Hume-Adams, later contained in the Downing Street Declaration, could only have a chance if the British and Irish governments bought into it.

Reynolds then set about bringing the British prime minister John Major, into the project. He had an advantage in that they were genuine friends, having built up a relationship from their days as finance ministers and both were pragmatists, not as emotionally and constitutionally burdened in their unionist conservatism and republicanism as some other high Tories and Fianna Fáil politicians.

Reynolds recalled in that Ibis speech, “When we left after our first meeting, he [Major] said, ‘I am with you all the way, let’s not condemn future generations of people living in the North of Ireland to murder and destruction and injuries that will last for the rest of their lives. Not the next generation. Let’s solve it at this generation.’”

It was anything but plain sailing thereafter but that Reynolds-Major nexus held and together, based on Hume- Adams, they and their officials were able to craft the Downing Street Declaration.

Reynolds also used his powers of persuasion to bring President Bill Clinton on board, twisting his arm to provide visas for Gerry Adams and veteran republican Joe Cahill at critical stages of the process.

‘Complete cessation’

It took more than eight months for the IRA to finally respond to the logic of the declaration when, 20 years ago, on August 31st, 1994, it declared a “complete cessation of military operations”.

Reynolds also made overtures to loyalism, reaching out to the likes of the late Gusty Spence and David Ervine, work that also paid off with the combined loyalist ceasefire of October 1994.

In some very liberal quarters of Irish society, Reynolds did not always get the respect he deserved, but he is respected in Northern Ireland by both sides, and that was reflected in the tributes paid yesterday by Northern politicians.