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.