Albert Reynolds: The high-stakes taoiseach

You could, if you wish, remember Albert Reynolds as the man who wrecked two governments. Or you could remember him as the man who built the peace process.

Albert Reynolds: The high-stakes taoiseach

He was both of those things. A complex, gregarious, and yet stubborn man who would bet his house on a game of poker if he had to. He took risks all his life, in business and in politics, and he always played for high stakes.

It was that singular trait of his personality that gives him his claim to greatness. If John Hume can be described as the designer and architect of the peace process, Albert Reynolds was undoubtedly its engineer and builder.

Much has been said and written in recent years of the role that Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair played in the final negotiating phase that led to the Good Friday Agreement. But that agreement traces its origins to the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993. In fact, if you read both documents, negotiated 15 years apart, you won’t find any principle in Downing Street, or any of the language in which those principles were expressed, that isn’t also in the Good Friday Agreement.

The difference — one difference anyway — was the climate. Albert Reynolds forged a relationship with a British prime minister, John Major, who was under the most intense pressure throughout his premiership, who always had to rely on unionist support — and he wrestled an agreement from him. Then he used that agreement to wrestle the Provisional IRA into declaring a ceasefire. And along the way, he persuaded the Combined Loyalist Military Command to lay down its arms too. It makes his place in history secure. But it was also a stunning political achievement.

You can see that process like the construction of a great and sturdy building. A great building needs architects and engineers. But it also needs master craftspeople, such as Dick Spring, and brilliant, problem-solving technical experts, such as the senior civil servants who did the drafting and the networking. I was one of the bricklayers on the job — probably an apprentice bricklayer if truth be told — but it gave me a great opportunity to see the engineer at work.

I was there when the IRA killed 11 people, including one of their own, on the Shankill Road, and when Gerry Adams carried the coffin of the dead bomber. That act alone could have completely destroyed the process then deeply in train. But Albert Reynolds wouldn’t let it.

And I was there, much later, the night Albert negotiated, almost through the night, with the White House to try to get a visa for an IRA man, Joe Cahill, so that he could tell the IRA’s US supporters that the army council had decided it was over.

It was Bill Clinton’s adviser, Nancy Soderberg, who said to Albert over the phone that granting a visa to a convicted murderer was an enormous ask. Mr Clinton needed a guarantee that it would work. “You get me the visa, Nancy,” Albert Reynolds told her, “and I’ll get you peace.”

I also sat in the audience at the Beef Tribunal, a couple of years earlier, when Adrian Hardiman, now a Supreme Court judge but then Des O’Malley’s lawyer, roared at Albert Reynolds in the witness box: “Do you accuse my client of perjury, sir?” It was the start of an intense and dramatic cross-examination about Albert Reynolds’ role in the granting of export credit insurance to major players in the beef industry.

At the end of that cross-examination, Albert Reynolds’ first coalition, with the Progressive Democrats, lay in shreds. He had accused his coalition partner, Des O’Malley, of dishonesty, and he couldn’t bring himself to withdraw that accusation.

Albert Reynolds was haunted by the Beef Tribunal, and by a never-ending search for vindication in relation to the issues involved. That search led to more dramatic scenes later, in the summer of 1994, even as the process leading to the IRA ceasefire was unfolding.

Spring to late autumn in that year of 1994 was perhaps the most exciting and turbulent period in Irish politics since 1969 and the Arms Crisis. And Albert was at the heart of every single event in a bewildering circus of political activity and scandal. Tax amnesties, passports for sale, relaxation of tax residency laws, the IRA ceasefire, the Beef Tribunal report and its publication, critical negotiations in Europe to finally deliver on his promise of eight billion, and then the cataclysmic Brendan Smyth affair that finally destroyed his government.

Albert Reynolds built a peace process on trust. Those who worked with him all trusted him absolutely to deliver.

But he also lost two governments because he couldn’t maintain trust with coalition partners. He once sarcastically said about me that I loved a good crisis so much that if there wasn’t one going on I’d invent one.

But you never needed to invent a crisis when Albert was around. He made sure life was never dull. He had his weaknesses and his strengths — not the least of his strengths was a fantastic family, whom he loved passionately and who always, no matter what, loved him. His willingness to take big risks was the thing that made the peace process possible. But it also cut his term in office much shorter than it need have been.

One last memory. I was there when he met an American delegation who were influential with the republican movement, a day or two before the ceasefire. They were on their way North to endorse the process. But they wanted to clear up the issue of weapons. Of course, they said, if there’s a ceasefire, weapons won’t be used. But they assumed everyone understood the IRA would still want to keep their weapons secure. Self-defence and all that.

Albert Reynolds understood nothing of the kind. Looking them in the eye he said: “If you’re at war you might need weapons. If you’re serious about peace, you don’t. You tell them that from me. The day of the gun is over.”

That’s what he achieved. And in the cold light of history, that’s what Albert Reynolds will most be remembered for.

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