To pull down one government was extraordinary, to pull down two is inexplicable

Decisions made to the benefit of Goodman group haunted his political career

Fri, Aug 22, 2014, 01:00

On the evening of July 29th, 1994, the chairman of the long-running inquiry into malpractice in the beef industry, Mr Justice Liam Hamilton, delivered a single hard copy of his report and a computer disk to then minister for agriculture, Fianna Fáil’s Joe Walsh. What followed is one of the most surreal episodes ever to unfold in Irish government offices.

The taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, and his advisers locked themselves into a section of Government Buildings with the only copy of the report. When Fergus Finlay, the most senior adviser to Albert Reynolds’s coalition partner, Labour leader Dick Spring, arrived looking for a copy, he was refused admittance.

Reynolds and his advisers then filleted the report, extracted two short quotations out of context, and issued a statement to the media claiming the taoiseach had been “totally vindicated”.

It was a kind of political coup, but one that irreparably damaged Reynolds’s relationship with Spring and, in effect, destroyed his own political career.

Fifteen minutes after the press statement was issued, Spring phoned The Irish Times from his home in Tralee to say that the statement did not represent his views or those of the government as a whole. The collapse of trust was out in the open and the collapse of the coalition was only a matter of time.

This self-destruction was bizarre – all the more so because the same issue of The Irish Times that reported these chaotic goings-on also reported that Reynolds and Spring were on the brink of delivering a historic achievement: a ceasefire by the IRA. What was even more extraordinary was that this was the second time Reynolds, like an enraged Samson, had pulled down the pillars of his own government over the same beef tribunal.

In October 1992, when he gave his sworn evidence to the tribunal, he seemed to deliberately accuse his then tánaiste, the Progressive Democrats leader Des O’Malley, of perjury. Quite out of the blue, he announced that O’Malley, in his own earlier sworn evidence, had knowingly given a “dishonest” account of the size of a legal claim being pursued by the giant beef processor Goodman International against the State.

Given an opportunity to withdraw or soften this accusation, he repeated it, leaving O’Malley with no real option but to pull his party out of the coalition. What was especially strange was that the charge had no substance – the Goodman claim was open-ended, so it was not possible to say with any certainty what it might amount to. It had all the appearance of revenge on O’Malley for having made some of the allegations that led to the tribunal’s establishment.

Self-destructive rage

In his autobiography, Reynolds wrote that the beef tribunal “was to bedevil me throughout my years as Taoiseach”. But it did more than that – it ensured that those years were short.

And this is the big mystery at the heart of Albert Reynolds’s career: why, exactly, did the beef tribunal, and the accusation that he had improperly favoured Larry Goodman’s beef empire when he was minister for industry and commerce in 1987 and 1988, create such self-destructive rage in such an otherwise cool customer?

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