Political leaders like Albert Reynolds have to be judged by what they do, not simply what they say

Opinion: Apparently at EU summits he used to stroll in and greet German Chancellor Helmut Kohl with “Howya Helmet”

‘At one of his first EU meetings Albert Reynolds  came to the conclusion that Mitterrand was talking nonsense and simply butted in saying: “Hang on a minute there François. I don’t agree with that at all”.’ Above,  Reynolds and  Mitterrand, along with  as Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, French prime minister Edouard Balladur, German foreign minister Klaus Kinkel, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and finance minster Theo Waigel at the two-day summit of the European Council December 1994. Photograph: Juergen Schwarz/  Reuter

‘At one of his first EU meetings Albert Reynolds came to the conclusion that Mitterrand was talking nonsense and simply butted in saying: “Hang on a minute there François. I don’t agree with that at all”.’ Above, Reynolds and Mitterrand, along with as Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, French prime minister Edouard Balladur, German foreign minister Klaus Kinkel, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and finance minster Theo Waigel at the two-day summit of the European Council December 1994. Photograph: Juergen Schwarz/ Reuter

Sun, Aug 24, 2014, 12:01

The tributes paid to Albert Reynolds for his undoubted achievement in building the peace process raise interesting questions about how to judge the success or failure of a political leader.

In terms of managing a coalition government, Reynolds was clearly a disaster. He also made some questionable decisions about the beef industry during his period as minister for industry and commerce.

Reynolds wasn’t a great orator and didn’t dominate Dáil proceedings like Charles Haughey. He was a self-made businessman from Longford, and didn’t have the breadth of knowledge or the vocabulary of an intellectual.

At the time he took over as taoiseach there was a good deal of snobbish commentary about his background and abilities, and yet he went on to do what no other taoiseach had: he found a way to bring the cycle of violence in the North to an end and put the relationship between Ireland and the UK on to a new footing.

At one level it was his very lack of awareness about the burden of history that enabled him to do what no Fianna Fáil leader had done before and to take risks that others wouldn’t contemplate.

His affable self-confidence made it appear that he was blithely unaware of the dangers as he played for high stakes at home and abroad. He was never overawed, no matter what the company.

Apparently at EU summits he used to stroll in and greet the powerful figure of German chancellor Helmut Kohl with “howya Helmet”.

One diplomat recalled how it became a ritual at the EU Council meetings that French president François Mitterrand would deliver a long address on the state of the world. The other leaders listened or pretending to listen in silence.

Secret delight

That was until Albert became taoiseach. At one of his first EU meetings he came to the conclusion that Mitterrand was talking nonsense and simply butted in. “Hang on a minute there, François. I don’t agree with that at all.” There was consternation and much secret delight around the table.

The gambler’s instinct that made him oblivious to danger was central to Reynolds’s successes and failures as a politician. Ultimately, though, the verdict on his short and tempestuous period as taoiseach has to be a positive one, mainly for his role in the peace process but also for the steady progress on the economic front.

The bottom line is that leaders have to be judged by what they do and not simply on what they say. The old cliché about campaigning in poetry but governing in prose is apt. There are very few politicians who can do both and unfortunately those best at poetry are often the worst when it comes to prose.

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