Commentary since death of Albert Reynolds has corrected the neglect of his achievements
Opinion: Former taoiseach not alone in collapsing coalition relationship
‘To borrow a phrase popular in the Reynolds camp at the time, when Dick Spring wasn’t himself taking offence he had Fergus Finlay to take offence on his behalf.’ Photograph: Paul Goulding
In 2001 RTÉ’s Andy O’Mahoney invited four of us into his radio studio to discuss Albert Reynolds for a series he was recording called Na Taoisigh – Leaders of the State.
The panel was made up of Tom Savage, who had been an adviser to Reynolds in government, Fergus Finlay, who had been an adviser to Dick Spring, Geraldine Kennedy, who had been a political correspondent and one-time TD, and I, who had been a junior party official at Fianna Fáil headquarters and then an adviser to Tom Kitt, who was minister of state for European Affairs when Reynolds was taoiseach.
The programme was to be recorded “as live” for an hour, but the discussion continued for a further hour and 10 minutes after they stopped recording. There was just so much to talk about.
Reynolds’s years as taoiseach were dramatic times, and the significance of his legacy was already very apparent even in 2001.
That O’Mahoney hour was one of the very few, perhaps the only, radio or television programme made by RTÉ about Reynolds’s political career in the almost 20 years since his retirement.
Not only was Reynolds underestimated when he was taoiseach, but his political achievements have been very much neglected since.
Two decadesIt has been pleasant over the past 48 hours to see that two decades of neglect of Reynolds’s contribution corrected in the extensive media coverage and commentary on his death.
On the day after Reynolds resigned as taoiseach, November 18th, 1994, this newspaper published a nasty editorial about him, one paragraph of which concluded with the line “public life will not be greatly the poorer for his departure from office”.
This was written a mere 10 weeks after Reynolds had delivered the IRA ceasefire.
The tenor of the editorial, and of some of the other commentary when he resigned, was reflective of a derogatory attitude much of the media had towards Albert. Fintan O’Toole’s column that day, for example, was headlined “Now to undo the damage Reynolds has done.”
The then Irish Times editor Conor Brady acknowledged when he retired that he had been unfair to Reynolds in that editorial.
Personal integrityHe wrote in his memoirs about how the uneasy relationship between Reynolds and The Irish Times arose in part because Reynolds had a habit of issuing libel letters when he felt a line had been crossed in attacking his personal integrity.
Brady accepted, however, that a clash of cultures also contributed to the media antagonism.
“Reynolds,” Brady writes, “had come from a background that few of the Dublin press corps understood or empathised with: show bands, ballrooms and a successful pet food factory in Longford.”
Stephen Collins, who, as it happens, has close family ties to Longford, has been more blunt in his assessment. He has suggested that some journalists looked down at Reynolds either because of his rural roots or because they felt he was their intellectual inferior.
That sense of superiority chimed, Collins points out, with the efforts of affiliates of the disposed Haughey regime to deride Reynolds as part of the “Country and Western wing” of Fianna Fáil.
Collins writes in his seminal book on Fianna Fáil ,The Power Game, that “the urban liberals and the Haughey toughs found common cause in sneering at Reynolds as an ‘unlettered culchie’ from Longford.”
One television clip of Reynolds which many delighted in replaying when he became taoiseach, and has even featured in some of the profiles this week, was of Albert dressed up in cowboy gear singing the Jim Reeves ballad Put your sweet slips a little closer to the phone. It a clip usually played without explanation of its context.
Live satireThere was a very popular Friday night TV programme in the early 1980s presented by Michael Murphy which was ground-breaking in doing live satire and comedy. It featured Twink and, indeed, it introduced Dermot Morgan to the nation most notably in the role of Fr Brian Trendy.
One of the fun items on the programme was to ask nationally-known figures to dress up and do covers of well-known songs.
With typical disregard for media management, Reynolds agreed to participate, illustrating his sense of fun. For this he was subsequently punished by the frequent replaying of the clip which fitted all too nicely into the “Country and Western” parody.
StubbornnessThere was consensus among those of us participating in the O’Mahoney programme in 2001, as there has been in most of the commentary this week, that the very dogged determination and stubbornness which enabled Albert to secure the IRA ceasefire also contributed to the collapse of his two coalition governments.
It should be remembered, however, that the other two party leaders involved were also stubborn men.
Dessie O’ Malley was famously truculent in politics and had provoked Reynolds with very negative evidence about him at the beef tribunal, while, to borrow a phrase popular in the Reynolds camp at the time, when Dick Spring wasn’t himself taking offence he had Fergus Finlay to take offence on his behalf. Albert certainly could be difficult but it takes two to collapse a coalition relationship.