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.

That challenge was rebuffed. It seemed the chance had passed but Haughey continued to be dogged by controversies and was eventually left with no choice but to resign.

However, Reynolds had made his reputation as a potential leader on the grounds that he opposed coalition with the PDs. Now in coalition with them as taoiseach, the arrangement was short lived. O’Malley had told the Beef Tribunal that Reynolds had favoured the companies of Larry Goodman on export credit insurance.

For his part, in the witness box, Reynolds described O’Malley’s charges as dishonest and would not withdraw the political charge. By refusing to do so, the die was cast. The government collapsed.

After a poor election campaign in 1992, where Fianna Fáil’s seat tally slumped to a historical low, Fianna Fáil surprised everybody by entering a coalition with Dick Spring’s Labour which had been scathing of Reynolds and his party in government. The Coalition worked well initially - particularly on Northern Ireland - but relations began to quickly deteriorate - impelled somewhat by Reynolds characteristic obstinacy and refusal to budge on key issues.

A controversial tax amnesty spearheaded by Reynolds soured relationships. However, the tipping points were the Beef Tribunal Reports and Reynolds insistence (against Labour’s wishes) that the attorney general Harry Whelehan be appointed to fill the vacant position as President of the High Court.

When Whelehan was drawn into the controversy surrounding the handling of the Brendan Smyth case by the A-G’s office, it led to an extraordinary crisis and opened a breach that was never repaired.

The achievements nationally during his time in office were significant. He went to a European Union summit where he achieved the then extraordinary coup of securing €8 billion in structural and cohesion funds, funds that acted as a stimulus for later dramatic growth in the economy.

He also established a very good relationship with Major. Bringing all strands of nationalism together - the southern nationalist parties, John Hume’s SDLP and Gerry Adams’ Sinn Féin - to agree to the principal of consent was a considerable achievement and culminated with the Downing Street declaration in late 1993.

That led in turn to the IRA ceasefire announcement the following year and set in train the slow move towards an ending of conflict and violence, and the acceptance of power-sharing.

The iconic image of Reynolds’ time as taoiseach is the photograph that shows him shaking hands with both Hume and Adams in Government buildings shortly after the ceasefire was announced - it denoted a hopeful future, a possibility that was borne out.

Reynolds presided over two relatively short-lived coalitions, both of which imploded over a collapse of trust and mutual suspicion between the two parties.

Stubborn and occasionally impetuous, Reynolds was nonetheless a substantial political figure whose decisiveness and vision were instrumental in effecting a declaration, that would in time change the course of Irish history.

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