Albert Reynolds will be remembered not just for his conventional political failures in Ireland but equally for his success as a peacemaker and statesman, writes Gerard Howlin.
LEAVING office on the 17th of November 1994 must have seemed to Albert Reynolds a crushing disappointment. The circumstances of his departure were appalling, and in part were of his own making. But now that time has winnowed the wheat of lasting accomplishment from the chaff of political controversy, Reynolds ranks among the architects of modern Ireland. The 21st century that began in an Ireland at peace, will so long as peace endures, remember him as a founding father.
Albert Reynolds unique distinction among Irish politicians is the extent to which he combined conventional political failure with lasting success as a statesman and a peacemaker. Others fell overboard into the fast political current, thought few as spectacularly. None, however, managed to marry a career ending in comparable failure with a legacy of such lasting achievement. Speaking for himself in the Dáil on the day he left office, he was clear. The greatest accomplishment of the government he led was the “breakthrough to peace in Northern Ireland”. He was right.
His daring and determination led him to take risks that led to the Downing Street Declaration on December 15, 1993, and a historic IRA ceasefire of August 31, 1994. The Downing Street Declaration was in principle the precursor of the fuller accord negotiated in the Good Friday Agreement. The Declaration and the truce it enabled, were the foundations for a historic reconciliation. Those are not just Reynolds’ outstanding achievement as Taoiseach; they are triumphs that merit his stature as a statesman.
Perception of Albert Reynolds the politician and minister who has been in the Dáil for 15 years before he succeeded Charles Haughey as Taoiseach gave little clue to either the success or failures to follow. The successful businessman, shrewd dealer and occasionally angular personality, had been a successful minister in several economic departments. If there was a wider hinterland beyond his background in business, his admired, hands-on, decision-making style in politics, and an interest in horse racing as a pasttime, it was not obvious. Reynolds would, it was believed, successfully sustain emerging, economic growth and serve the pressing need of Fianna Fáil for a leader other than Charlie Haughey.
Few discerned a particular interest in Northern Ireland in his political pedigree. He had certainly left a light footprint on this central issue before becoming Taoiseach. He had, however, considerable personal and business contacts across Northern Ireland. He had attended the arms trial in 1970 and decades later as a minister successfully pursued North-South economic co-operation. On becoming Taoiseach he immediately identified Northern Ireland and the economy as the two key issues he was determined to pursue. These two issues were regarded as self-selecting and, in Reynolds’ case, his name-checking the North as a key priority was considered more a platitude than a priority. Albert Reynolds was not, however, a man for platitudes, and he took a very determined approach to his priorities.
On becoming Taoiseach, Reynolds inherited a secret, back channel to the provisional movement through Haughey’s adviser, Dr Martin Mansergh, and the Redemptorist priest Father Alec Reid, based in the Clonard Monastery in Belfast. In the regime change from the Haughey era, famed for its scale of ministerial sackings, Reynolds asked Mansergh to continue in his pivotal role. From the beginning of his time as Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds was aware that the northern issue was one of tentative political possibility. He correctly analysed that the provisional movement was open to a deal and that its private position was more nuanced than its public posture. While Reynolds, himself never spoke to Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness or anybody else in Sinn Féin or the IRA before the ceasefire, contact was ongoing from the beginning and Reynolds was completely committed to achieving a result.
If he never spoke directly to his interlocutors in the provisional movement; he didn’t speak at all to his Progressive Democrat partners in government or their leader Des O’Malley about this highly sensitive undertaking. When his already deeply damaged relationship with the PDs ran its course in the general election of November 1992, he did take the leader of the Labour Party Dick Spring into his confidence. Spring entered government, became minister for foreign affairs and played an important part working with Reynolds on the peace process until that relationship, too, disintegrated.
In parallel with the secret contacts with the provisionals was the Hume-Adams talks process. Fr Reid was key to their beginnings in the late 1980s and John Hume was an early visitor to Reynolds in the taoiseach’s office. Critically, Reynolds, amidst some contention in Irish government circles, agreed to progress a ceasefire in advance of talks on an eventual agreement. Reynolds took the view that a ceasefire should come first. The Downing Street Declaration with its carefully balanced set of principles and objectives was a key stepping stone to achieving that end. Hume-Adams and the Reid-Mansergh conduit were critical in shaping the overall Irish approach.
In the declaration, Britain declared it had no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland. Ireland acknowledged the presence in the constitution of the republic of elements which were deeply resented by Northern unionists. Both governments stated their willingness to engage in talks with ‘parties which establish a commitment to exclusively peaceful methods’.
Albert Reynolds’ capacity to progress tentative peace talks on several fronts at once was immensely strengthened by his long-standing relationship with the British Prime Minister, John Major. A new friendship with US President Bill Clinton, who has been inaugurated in January 1992, a month before Reynolds became taoiseach, was critical as well.
Major and Reynolds had known each other as finance ministers. It is unquestionable that John Major approached the so-called ‘Irish question’ with more openness and commitment that any British prime minister since William Gladstone. Reynolds fully deserves the credit for persuading a domestically beleaguered Major to take a substantial risk for peace and a radically different approach from a British perspective.
Major went far beyond the cordon sanitaire of security advice that had restrained the political thinking of British governments since the 1970s. He and Reynolds frequently met alone without officials, which was a key manoeuvre in ensuring the talks’ process was not colonised by vested interests. Given John Major’s increasingly precarious, domestic political position, the boldness of his commitment to a highly tentative and risky talks’ process is an enormous compliment to the stock he placed on Reynolds’ judgement. In a peace process that politically outlived both Major and Reynolds, Major remains an under-appreciated pillar of Irish peace.
If John Major was an old friend of Albert Reynolds when he became taoiseach, Bill Clinton became a new one. Reynolds quickly established a close relationship with the new president. The fruits of that were the appointment of Jean Kennedy Smith as the new, high-profile US Ambassador to Ireland and the consistent engagement of the US both politically and economically ever since. In particular, at a crucial moment when republicans required assurance that political doors would open if a truce was called, Clinton moved over the head of the US State Department to grant, first Gerry Adams, and then Joe Cahill, visas into the US. Reynolds had to go out on a dangerous political ledge to deliver these. Famously, Clinton told him, when he gave Cahill a visa, that if as promised by Reynolds a ceasefire didn’t follow: “I never want to hear from you again if this one doesn’t run.” It did.
Albert Reynolds challenged and then changed the Northern Ireland political paradigm. In parallel to his contacts with the provisionals, he successfully reached out to loyalist paramilitaries. He was the architect of not one but two ceasefires. His ‘a deal is a deal’ attitude that undid him politically in the south, was respected among both politicians and paramilitaries in Northern Ireland.
His curtailed term as taoiseach was a transformative bolt of lightning for peace and political change on this island. The entrenched attitudes against any dealings with the provisionals made this a dangerous, political project, but Reynolds the politician was oblivious to danger.
Reynolds did not begin the peace process; tentative beginnings had already been made. Neither did he survive politically to endure the years of negotiations; the steps forward and setbacks that led via the Good Friday Agreement to the power-sharing administration established at Stormont on May 8, 2007. There are only a handful of players who can say they were essential to the peace process. But, the truth is that without Reynolds, his bravery and willpower, none of them would ever have had the chance to play the roles they eventually did.
Years after he left politics prematurely he quoted Eleanor Roosevelt, who wrote that “politicians should do the things that politicians think they cannot do”. So now, at the end, let us remember the beginning.
On August 31, 1994, P O’Neil announced: “The IRA will announce a complete cessation of military operations effective from midnight on Wednesday night.” This is Albert Reynolds’ epitaph. He did what others thought could not be done and the good he did lives on after him.
“When we met for the first time with him as taoiseach in Downing Street, after we had had the official meeting, we adjourned upstairs to the White Room and spoke privately, just the two of us.
“We had a lengthy meeting then and it was perfectly clear to both of us that it was necessary to strike out in a new direction, to seek a new approach to end the bloodshed in Northern Ireland and on the mainland.
“It was clear to me that Albert was committed to that and was prepared to take risks for it. At that moment he had a different end product in mind than I did, but we were both prepared to move in that direction.
“Albert was a man prepared to take risks and prepared to do a deal in a good cause, and I thought that was very helpful. And that became the beginning of what became known as the peace process.
“Albert and I had got to know one other as finance ministers and we shared many a joke together and the occasional drink together, but it was when he became taoiseach that we actually focused on the problems of Northern Ireland and how to bring a rapprochement, not just between north and south, but to improve the relations between east and west, between London and Dublin.
“Until Albert became prime minister, shockingly, really, there was no regular, routine contact between the British prime minister and the Irish taoiseach, and yet Ireland is Britain’s nearest and closest neighbour. That was absurd and Albert was keen to put that right.
“We saw the problems [in the North] becoming more and more entrenched and I think Albert realised instinctively that if we did nothing and it became more entrenched, the hostility and the suspicions, and in some cases the hatreds, would become so intense and so entrenched that they would be very difficult to reverse.
“So what actually happened in those difficult few months [before the Downing Street Declaration] I think steeled Albert towards making concessions, seeking a deal, demanding concessions from me, in the hope that we could move things on to a different plane so the violence from the point of view of those who were carrying out the violence was counterproductive.It reinforced for usthe need for a deal.
“[During negotiations] I had accusations of bad faith to make against Albert and he had accusations of bad faith to make against me and we repaired to a private room and we had a pretty furious row.
“But the joy of the relationship with Albert from the start was that, in a fashion I can’t quite explain, we were able to have the fiercest of rows without leaving scars and without leaving either of us less inclined to pursue the peace process than we were before. It was a clearing of the air.
“Albert had to deal with some great difficulties on his side, not least of course with Sinn Féin and with the paramilitaries, and I had to deal on my side with some extremely hostile views among many members of parliament, particularly in my own party.
“So we both in different ways had difficult backbenchers that we had to keep in play because too much hostility on either side might have wrecked the process.
“I understood Albert’s difficulties and he understood mine, so when I accused him of bad faith, I knew why he’d done what he’d done and when he accused me of bad faith, he understood why I had done what I had done. That was what enabled us to have a row, sort it out and return to the table. It was a relationship unlike any other I had during my years in government.
“I think we can say without equivocation that during the Irish peace process we became friends.
“I like Albert. I admire Albert. I enjoyed his company and I enjoyed the company of Kathleen, his wife, and his family as well. When I saw him the last time, his whole family came as well and we had a pretty joyous couple of hours.
“Albert wasn’t well. His memory was beginning to go and he wasn’t at all well, that was very evident. But it was a delightful meeting and one that I treasured then and treasure still.
“I think he was more than a politician. People who took the risks that Albert took, that could have caused him huge political difficulties and that he took for the greater good of ending bloodshed, I think that’s not a politician — I think that’s a statesman.”
Former British prime minister John Major, who signed the Downing Street Declaration with Albert Reynolds in 1993, was paying tribute on Today with Sean O’Rourke on RTÉ Radio.
One of the key architects of the loyalist ceasefires has lauded Albert Reynolds’ enormous contribution to the peace process.
Billy Hutchinson was once an Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) gunman and prisoner, but he helped spearhead moves to end Northern Ireland violence in 1994. He said the former taoiseach was well thought of by loyalist ceasefirenegotiators.
“Albert Reynolds was highly regarded by David Ervine and Gusty Spence through his engagement with them to reassure loyalists around the intentions of the Irish Government following the ceasefires.
“He will be remembered for this contribution and his wider role with republicans.”
Unionists from across the spectrum have paid tribute to the statesman and saidhe had a cautious and careful approach to negotiations which led to IRA and loyalist ceasefires and the Good Friday peace agreement four years later.
Lord Robin Eames, the retired head of the Church of Ireland, said the former taoiseach recognised the importance of obtaining consent by all to any future constitutional change.
“He made strenuous efforts to understand and articulate the feelings ofProtestant and unionist people at a time of immense pressure, suffering anduncertainty for this community.
“He showed great courage in making contact with the Northern community andhistory must recognise the significant role he and John Major played in bringing about the ultimate cessation of the Troubles.”
The Downing Street Declaration was made by Mr Reynolds in December 1993 alongside then British prime minister John Major.
It espoused principles combining consent to constitutional change and power-sharing with an Irishdimension.
Retired Presbyterian minister, Rev Ken Newell helped pioneer cross-community relations with Catholics to encourage peace. “I know that he was a door-opener for Sinn Féin, he opened the door and brought them in from the cold.”
Jeffrey Donaldson, a former Ulster Unionist and now Democratic Unionist MP, said unionists could not have taken their own steps towards peace without hisacceptance of the need for change.
“Albert Reynolds was the first Irish prime minister who understood and supported the principle of consent in relation to Northern Ireland. He had an understanding of Northern Ireland and the Republic’s relationship with the whole of the UK which was beyond many of his counterparts.
John Hume said Mr Reynolds was at the heart of the success of the Irish peace process.
“Without Albert, it may never have started — or might have stalled at an early stage — and Ireland, north and south, might still be enduring the violence that scarred daily lives for so long.
“Albert cared about achieving peace and took risks to deliver a future for Ireland that many thought was impossible. He deserves an honoured place in the history of his country.
“To me, he became a friend I cherish and will miss.”
Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said Mr Reynolds showed tremendous courage.
“Albert was a peacemaker. He was someone who understood the North and the nationalist republican community but, just as importantly, he understood the loyalist unionist community and had contacts in both.
Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams said Mr Reynolds had the ability to act when it mattered.
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