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.
His supporters were not above chicanery. Reynolds rowed with Haughey over going into a coalition with the PDs and was the figurehead for the naysayers within Fianna Fáil.
When he and his supporters began to push against Haughey, it was no accident that Seán Doherty appeared on Nighthawks to claim that Haughey was well aware that the phones of two journalists, Geraldine Kennedy and Bruce Arnold, were tapped.
When Haughey finally bowed to the inevitable, Reynolds’s supporters exploited the break-up of Bertie Ahern’s marriage as a lever to prevent the younger politician from entering the Fianna Fáil leadership race.
It worked both ways. Years later, Reynolds was led to believe that his nomination as the party’s candidate for the presidential election was assured with Ahern’s blessing – while Ahern’s supporters were busily drumming up support for Mary McAleese.
Some achievements during his time as taoiseach were significant. He went to a EU summit and secured €8 billion in structural and cohesion funds that acted as a stimulus for later dramatic growth in the economy.
Bringing all strands of nationalism together – the Southern nationalist parties, John Hume’s SDLP and Gerry Adams’s 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 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 enduring images of Reynolds’s time as taoiseach are the photographs that show him shaking hands with Hume and Adams at Government Buildings shortly after the ceasefire was announced.
Reynolds had replaced Haughey at the head of a Fianna Fáil/PD coalition government in February 1992, but the arrangement was never going to last. In his evidence to the beef tribunal, O’Malley had accused Reynolds of favouring Larry Good- man’s companies.
Reynolds, in the witness box, 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 in November 1992.
After a flat election campaign later that month (Reynolds was a poor campaigner), Fianna Fáil’s seat tally slumped to a historic low. But the party surprised everybody by entering a coalition with Dick Spring’s Labour, which had been scathing of Reynolds and his party in government.
The new coalition worked well initially but relations began to deteriorate quickly. Reynolds’s obstinacy was a contributory factor.
The tipping point was Reynolds’s 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 Smyth case by the AG’s office, it led to an extraordinary crisis and opened a breach that was never repaired.
Reynolds was nonetheless a substantial political figure whose decisiveness and vision were instrumental in effecting a ceasefire and a blueprint for the peace process, that would in time change the course of Irish history.