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

Last Updated: Sunday, August 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.

There are some parallels between Reynolds and current Taoiseach Enda Kenny when it comes to their effectiveness on the one hand and the disdain in which they are held by sections of the media on the other.

Kenny has, thankfully, not had to contend with trying to bring a 30-year cycle of violence to an end, and unlike Reynolds he knows how to make coalition work. His outstanding achievement has been to preside over a government that steered the country through a shocking economic crisis that threatened the very viability of the State.

In the past week Ireland’s borrowing costs have fallen to the lowest in history and, barring a serious shock at international level, the economy is on track for sustained growth in the years ahead.

While the foundations for recovery were put in place by the much-derided Fianna Fáil-Green government in its final years in office, the achievements of Kenny’s Government should not be underestimated.

Far from getting thanks for what they have done, Kenny and his colleagues are increasingly on the defensive for the tough decisions they have been required to take in the common good. That is politics. Leaders should never expect public gratitude because they rarely if ever get it. Since the economic crisis struck this country in 2008 there has been a lot of talk about the collapse of public confidence in our politicians and the need to reform our political system. It’s an interesting subject for debate but doesn’t really affect the underlying political reality one way or another.

Trust in politicians

Ben Page, the chief executive of Ipsos/Mori in the UK, said in an interview with The Irish Times last weekend that the widespread belief that trust in politicians had fallen to an all-time low was simply wrong. He pointed out that the figure hadn’t changed much in Britain over the past 30 years.

“The idea that there was a golden age when people trusted politicians is a myth,” said Page but he also stressed that just because most people didn’t trust politicians didn’t mean they had lost faith in democracy. “I think the joy of representative democracy is not having to take personal responsibility for anything and being able to give somebody else a good kicking. We secretly like doing that.”

It is the politicians’ fate to take a good kicking every now and then, sometimes deserved and sometimes not. The important thing is what they achieve when entrusted with office, and only time is the real judge of that.