Peace process was Reynolds’ greatest achievement

Analysis: He was not slow to venture opinions and could not be persuaded to withdraw

Photograph: Matt Kavanagh 6th  An image from September 1994 showing the then taoiseach Albert Reynolds (centre) shaking hands with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams (left) and SDLP leader John Hume outside Government Buildings after a discussion of ways to advance the peace process following the IRA’s ceasefire announcement of August 31st. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh/The Irish Times

Photograph: Matt Kavanagh 6th An image from September 1994 showing the then taoiseach Albert Reynolds (centre) shaking hands with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams (left) and SDLP leader John Hume outside Government Buildings after a discussion of ways to advance the peace process following the IRA’s ceasefire announcement of August 31st. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh/The Irish Times

Thu, Aug 21, 2014, 10:42

Albert Reynolds, like his British counterpart at the time John Major, may never have obtained the profile of some of the celebrated and notorious politicians who occupied the office of taoiseach but his influence was nonetheless profound.

His period in top political office was short-lived but he will be remembered for his gamble to persevere with the peace process when there was little political capital in it, a decision that culminated with the Downing Street Declaration and the IRA ceasefire that was announced in the summer of 1994.

His period of office also coincided with the end of the Beef Tribunal - an inquiry that led to an acrimonious falling out with his coalition partners the Progressive Democrats.

During that time, two crises erupted that did immense damage to the coalition and indeed are issues that have persisted to this day.

The first was the X-case which concluded with a Supreme Court decision that a 14-year old girl who was a suicide risk could have her pregnancy terminated.

The second was the controversy surrounding delays within the Attorney General’s office of the handling of the extradition of a paedophile priest, Brendan Smyth.

Reynolds came from a business background and entered national politics in the 1970s, by which time he had already established successful businesses incorporating dance halls and a pet food factory.

Until he succeeded Charles Haughey as Fianna Fáil leader in early 1992, Reynolds was seen primarily as a politician whose strength was on the economic side - he had served as minister for finance, industry and commerce, and communications.

He was also a force in ensuring that the availability of a decent telephone network throughout the country was possible.

However, he astonished everybody, including some of his closest advisers, by declaring on his appointment as taoiseach that he would make progress in the peace talks in the North a political priority.

During evidence to the beef tribunal, Reynolds had described himself as a person who has got through life with all the information he required summarised on a single sheet. This ‘single sheet’ image led to some disparagement but also marked out his image as a decisive and non-vacillating politician.

But that impulsive nature also at times worked against him.

Reynolds, the least affected of human beings, was not slow in venturing opinions and once he had declared an opinion, was obstinate and could not be persuaded to withdraw.

He could also take political attacks as personal slights. And that led to fallings-out, some of which became bitter. The first major one was with Charles Haughey, when the then Fianna Fáil leader and taoiseach first of all decided to hold a snap election in 1989 (only two years after the last) and then made the fateful decision to enter a coalition for the first time, with the Progressive Democrats led by Desmond O’Malley.

Reynolds formed a dissident rump within Fianna Fáil, which loosely became known as the ‘country and western’ set. They challenged Haughey in 1991, with Sean Doherty making a famous appearance on Nighthawks to make the claim that Haughey was aware that the phones of two journalists were tapped on the orders of the government a decade earlier.

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