Albert Reynolds’s towering achievement was the peace process
Opinion: The qualities of stubborn single-mindedness that brought about the IRA ceasefire also led to both his Coalition governments crashing down
‘The Downing Street declaration was the foundation stone on which the peace process was built.’ Above, British prime minister, John Major, with taoiseach Albert Reynolds, following the agreement of the Downing Street Declaration in December 1993. Photograph: Peter Thursfield / THE IRISH TIMES
Albert Reynolds was taoiseach for just over 2½ years but in that short period he became the architect of what was subsequently called the peace process.
By the time he left office in November 1994 the Provisional IRA’s long campaign of violence was effectively over for good. Many others who served in the taoiseach’s office for far longer achieved much less. Reynolds’s achievement was not merely to get the IRA to stop killing people: he managed to get the republican movement to accept the principle of consent.
The acceptance that a united Ireland could come about only with the consent of the people in both parts of the island represented a fundamental shift for republicans and it is one on which all the subsequent political progress in Northern Ireland was based.
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The tragedy for Reynolds was that the qualities of stubborn single-mindedness that enabled him to achieve what nobody else could in relation to the North also brought both his coalition governments crashing down. His cavalier approach to business and politics also raised questions about his handling of issues such as the beef industry during his period as minister for industry and commerce.
However, his towering achievement in establishing the framework in which the IRA campaign came to an end put his political shortcomings into perspective. Charles Haughey reputedly told Margaret Thatcher during his teapot diplomacy phase in 1981 that history would remember the politician who solved the Irish problem rather than the one who was best on the economy. That accolade has to go to Reynolds, who will always be remembered as the taoiseach who managed to lay the foundations for a lasting settlement.
North was top priorityThe extraordinary thing is that when he became taoiseach in February 1992 nobody in politics had the remotest idea that finding a solution to the apparently intractable problem of Northern Ireland was his greatest ambition. On the day he took over as taoiseach, Reynolds astonished everybody, including some members of his family, by saying that a settlement in the North was his top priority.
Nobody had ever heard the Longford businessman talk about the issue before. During his period in the Dáil between 1977 and 1992 he never addressed the issue. In his autobiography he claimed that he was unhappy with the way Fianna Fáil had opposed the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 negotiated by Garret FitzGerald and Thatcher, but he did not go public on the issue at the time. When he became taoiseach, however, he launched with gusto into the search for a solution.
For two decades the holy grail of Irish and British politicians had been to devise a political solution that could bring peace. Reynolds simply stood conventional wisdom on its head and started from the premise that if peace could be brought about a political solution would follow.
He was lucky that he came to power just after John Major had taken over as British prime minister. The two men had struck up a warm relationship as finance ministers and this meant they got off to a flying start when they both reached the top job.
StatesmanMajor has recorded that of all the political leaders he dealt with during his time in Downing Street, Reynolds was his favourite, even though they had some ferocious rows. Neither could have brought about progress on the North without the other. Major yesterday paid a handsome tribute to Reynolds, saying he deserved to be remembered not just as a successful politician but as a statesman.
In his autobiography Reynolds acknowledged that in Major he found the British political leader the most committed to solving the Irish problem since Gladstone. In all his dealings with the British, the republican movement, nationalists, unionists and loyalists, Reynolds managed to get and retain their trust, but he was also prepared to call their bluff when required and risk collapsing the process.
He famously tackled Major at a summit in Dublin and so shocked the British prime minister with the ferocity of his language that a stunned Major snapped his pencil in half. More to the point the prime minister got the message and within weeks had agreed the historic Downing Street declaration which is the foundation stone on which the peace process was built.
Getting the British to agree to the Downing Street declaration in December 1993 was just one half of the equation. Reynolds also had to get the IRA to commit itself to a cessation of violence. “I’m breaking a few rules,” he said. “First, instead of continuing to marginalise these people [IRA/Sinn Féin], I’m going to try to pull them in . . . They must be shown the benefits of ending the ‘armed struggle’ and going the constitutional road.”
It took some time, but an IRA cessation emerged in August 1994. That ceasefire broke down two years later but ultimately it became permanent and it paved the way for a political settlement that all sides eventually approved.
Taking risks was Reynolds’s stock in trade. When he took over as taoiseach from Haughey he threw caution to the wind and sacked eight members of the cabinet and nine junior ministers. In their place he promoted TDs such as Brian Cowen, Charlie McCreevy and Noel Dempsey who had been languishing on the backbenches. It was a bold approach but it created for the new leader a host of powerful enemies who were only waiting for him to trip up.
It is not widely recognised, but Reynolds was something of an outsider in Fianna Fáil. He did not come from one of the big political dynasties and in fact his family in Roscommon was associated more with Fine Gael than Fianna Fáil.
His involvement in politics began in the 1960s when he was an election agent for Joe Sheridan, the Independent TD for Longford-Westmeath, who was a former Fine Gael member.
Many of the big names in Fianna Fáil looked down on Reynolds as an interloper and that in turn meant he had no qualms about firing big Fianna Fáil names such as Gerry Collins, Ray Burke and Mary O’Rourke. His very lack of a Fianna Fáil pedigree was probably an advantage to Reynolds in his approach to finding a settlement in the North. He did not feel bound to follow in any tradition but simply wanted to find a way of doing a deal that would bring violence to an end.
Major pointed out yesterday that as well as working for better North-South relations Reynolds also moved relations between the Irish and British governments on to a new plane that led directly to the warm relationship that now exists between the two countries.
Never overawedIn negotiations with Ireland’s European Union partners Reynolds also proved his mettle. He was never overawed by the big beasts of European politics such as Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand. Irish officials held their breath on occasion as Reynolds flatly contradicted one or other of the big two at EU council meetings. Far from the roof caving in, Reynolds had a hugely successful time in Europe. A deal he pulled off at an EU summit in Edinburgh in December 1992 won €8 billion in structural and cohesion funds for Ireland and helped to save his political bacon at home.
There was wide scepticism in the media about the €8 billion deal, but ultimately it was delivered upon long after Reynolds had ceased to be taoiseach. The media scepticism about the deal reflected a widely held dismissive view of his abilities.
He was often derided for his membership of Fianna Fáil’s “country and western” wing, and being a “one-page man”. That negative attitude prompted him into some ill-advised libel actions against the media, in sharp contrast with his good personal relations with most journalists. Reynolds just didn’t follow the rules, and that approach – which had proved so invaluable in negotiations with the British, the parties in the North and other EU leaders – played a part in his failures as a coalition leader.
From the moment he took over as taoiseach he appeared intent on breaking the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrat coalition and it fell apart in less than a year when he called Des O’Malley’s evidence to the beef tribunal “dishonest.” Despite a disastrous general election in November 1992 he managed to retain office by doing a coalition deal with Labour that many members of his party thought impossible. Yet the same cavalier approach that brought the coalition into being proved its downfall. Reynolds could not accept the constraints that coalition imposed. His response to the tribunal report in August 1994 put him on a direct trajectory of conflict with his tánaiste Dick Spring.
Just over two months later his government fell on the politically trivial issue of who should be president of the High Court, but it effectively came apart because of the tribunal. Ultimately Reynolds’s strengths were also his weaknesses. His willingness to break the rules brought his two governments to a premature end but it also brought about a durable peace settlement.
Stephen Collins is Political Editor