Albert Reynolds leaves a legacy of peace on the island of Ireland
The Downing Street Declaration represents an enduring legacy of former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds because it formally affirmed the right of the Irish people to self-determination. Breaking new ground, it granted the people of Ireland, North and South, the exclusive right to resolve their issues by agreement and mutual consent. In addition, control of Northern Ireland would be transferred to the Republic of Ireland from the United Kingdom if a majority of the population favoured such a move.
Securing an agreement with the British Government that recognised nationalist aspirations and unionist determination, while reaching out to paramilitary organisations, was all the more impressive because it ran counter to the prevailing political consensus. John Hume was the pioneering figure but it was the strong and trusting relationship that Mr Reynolds developed with the British prime minister John Major that made it all possible.
As a successful businessman, Albert Reynolds was sharply aware of the importance investors placed in stability and certainty. He also knew that for so long as Northern Ireland was racked by murder and mayhem, it would blight economic and social development for the whole island. Efforts over 20 years to marginalize and destroy paramilitary organisations had failed and so, on becoming Taoiseach, he took a risk and invited them into a peace process.
Coming to politics relatively late, after a colourful business career, he was a man in a hurry, determined to make his mark. Fianna Fáil’s success in a give-away 1977 election had caused Jack Lynch to worry about the size of his majority. He was right to be concerned. Ambitious new TDs were not prepared to wait and formed a coterie around Charles Haughey who, within two years, had replaced Mr Lynch. Mr Reynolds was appointed Minister for Posts and Telegraphs and proved to be an efficient administrator and wily politician. He had money to invest in an outmoded telecommunications system and the promise of a telephone represented a guaranteed vote from any constituent. He was also an assiduous funeral-attender.
As Minister for Industry, he supported Irish exports through a guarantee scheme that became the focus of the Beef Tribunal. Accusation of partiality in the allocation of those resources by Des O’Malley caused a government to fall. But, before all that happened, the departure of Ray MacSharry to Brussels in 1988 opened the door for his promotion to Finance.
Over the years, relations between Mr Haughey and Mr Reynolds soured as a succession of scandals buffeted Fianna Fáil. By 1991, along with a number of western colleagues dubbed the “country and western” faction, he supported a motion of ‘no confidence’ and withdrew from Cabinet when it was defeated. Within months, however, Mr Haughey was forced to resign because of his imputed knowledge of illegal telephone-tapping.
A bad election result was expected to remove Fianna Fáil from office. But Fine Gael’s presumption and what was described as “the longest love letter in history” saw the surprise emergence of a Fianna Fáil-Labour Party government. Mr Reynolds offered a generous range of social legislation to his new partners but it wasn’t long before tensions re-emerged over the Beef Tribunal report and judicial appointments. That old stubborn behaviour reasserted itself.
His handling of the “X” case was courageous and the passage of a referendum providing for a right to travel and freedom of information on abortion was probably all that could have been achieved at that time. As he said himself, the job of Taoiseach was to take decisions. Having made a wrong decision, however, he was incapable of acknowledging it. But the peace dividend outshines all that; a testament to his ability to be brave and decisive against the odds.