What made Reynolds as a politician also undid him
Late former taoiseach may have lacked the personal touch but his influence was profound
Albert Reynolds and John Major outside 10 Downing Street in December 1993. Reynolds, like his British counterpart at the time, may never have achieved the profile of some of the celebrated – and notorious – politicians who occupied the office of taoiseach. He neither had the charisma of Charles Haughey nor the popular touch of Bertie Ahern, but nonetheless his influence was profound. Photograph: Reuters/Dylan Martinez
The one-page man. It was what made him as a politician and it was also his undoing in a way. Reynolds didn’t like an abundance of detail, just the gist, the kernel.
He was a decision-maker, not a waverer. The decisions were often taken on a hunch, by chance, and with the risk- taking of a natural gambler. When they worked out, the success was spectacular; when they didn’t, the consequences were often politically disastrous.
One particular quote was used by his opponents to beat him, but was offered by his supporters as evidence of a politician who had the unusual ability to cut through the dross. It was uttered when he gave evidence to the beef tribunal and explained his approach to politics and to ministerial office.
“I operate a department on the basis of no long files, no long reports. Put it on a single sheet and if I need more information I know where to get it. [That] one-sheet approach has got me through life very successfully in business and politics.”
Albert Reynolds, like his British counterpart at the time, John Major, may never have achieved the profile of some of the celebrated – and notorious – politicians who occupied the office of taoiseach. He neither had the charisma of Charles Haughey nor the popular touch of Bertie Ahern, but nonetheless his influence was profound.
Gamble to persevere He will be remembered for his gamble to persevere with the peace process when there was little political capital in it, culminating with the Downing Street Declaration and the IRA ceasefire in the summer of 1994.
His period as taoiseach from February 1992 until December 1994 coincided with the end of the beef tribunal – an inquiry that led to an acrimonious falling out with his first coalition government partners, the Progressive Democrats.
During that time, two other crises erupted.
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 in relation to the handling of the extradition of a paedophile priest, Brendan Smyth.
Reynolds became increasingly involved with Fianna Fáil in the 1970s, first as a councillor and then as a TD in 1977, where he quickly became identified as a Haughey supporter.
His acumen in business was reflected in his ministries. He modernised the postal and telecommunications sectors and was pro-business on taxes and in industry; as minister for finance he cut taxes but also tried to cut services.
A teetotaller with a down- to-earth demeanour that was never abandoned, he was unfailingly loyal to his family and to his closest supporters.
At the same time he was the quintessential self-made man, with some of the trappings of wealth, including large executive cars. He was indifferent to the riles that he was not the most polished speaker or had a “country and western” image.
That said, he could be thin-skinned and took some political slights very personally. That led to fallings-out, some of which became bitter.
He fell out with Haughey, his relationship with his PDs coalition partner Des O’Malley was appalling, and with Labour’s Dick Spring it descended into bitterness and recrimination.