Former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds’ death prompted an outpouring of tributes about his contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process, but also breast-beating about how he might have manned the reins on the rampaging Celtic Tiger, had he survived politically beyond his brief tenure. The verdict was that he would have made a better fist of it than those who succeeded him. The ballast for this verdict was Reynolds’ background as a businessman, which, the received wisdom has it, would have ensured a better capacity to balance the books.
The other ‘what-if’ of the week is a hardy annual that pops up at the Beal na mBlath commemoration for Michael Collins.
This year, the address was given by broadcaster, George Hook, who wrapped his blue colours tight around himself from the off.
“I’m here, like you, to remember the life of Michael Collins, to mourn his passing, but, above all, to wonder what this country might have been like had he lived,” George told the gathering.
The annual commemoration is worthy, and well-organised by Dermot Collins (no relation). But to hear that George is mourning a man who died 92 years ago, nearly two decades before George was born, is a little disturbing.
That’s nothing compared to Mr Hook’s airing of the tired notion that the fledgling State might have matured differently had Collins lived.
There is comfort in these notions. If only Albert had kept his head, he could have guided us sensibly through the Promised Land of new riches and we wouldn’t have ended up bankrupt.
If only Collins had lived, the newly independent State would not have developed into a satellite of the Vatican, a place incapable of supporting its own sons and daughters, a dark hole for those deemed to be outside societal norms.
These ‘what-ifs’ provide solace against the simple twists of fate — usually embodied in the life of a single person — that led the country down a cul de sac, rather than onto the highway to a better future.
A similar notion informs much of the debate around the bank guarantee of 2008. If only Brians Cowen and Lenihan had acted differently the country would not have sunk to the depths it has in the last six years, this line goes.
To imagine that one decision, such as that, could wipe the slate clean from nearly a decade of economic mismanagement is fanciful in the extreme.
Were it that life was so simple. The tributes to Reynolds were many in the aftermath of his death. Much was made of his entrepreneur’s instinct for the calculated gamble, particularly in relation to the peace process.
But how would the businessman in Reynolds have reacted to the sudden prosperity that washed across the country in the mid- to late-1990s, soon after he left office? Would he have moderated the new dispensation with any more skill than those who succeeded him?
Equally, would Reynolds the businessman have shown restraint when opportunities presented themselves to keep the party going on the never-never, once the initial economic surge came to a shuddering halt in 2002?
Those who would have answered in the positive last week must also believe that Reynolds would have been less susceptible to mortgaging the country’s future for electoral gain.
There is precious little to believe that to be the case.
Sure, Bertie Ahern turned out to be entirely reckless, but what politician would have called time on the party when the arse was being blown out of the bubble? Most leaders would have been dwarfed by the big picture at the time. The confluence of circumstances — the prospect of losing a newfound prosperity and the introduction of the euro, combined with the political culture of this country — meant that disaster was an inevitability waiting to happen.
Reynolds would have made precious little difference to that scenario.
Just as he would have made little difference to the current situation, in which government parties are vying to ensure that their respective constituencies receive a goody bag ahead of the next election.
Nobody, apart from a few economics boffins, wants to acknowledge that the recovery is extremely fragile and requires delicate handling. The political culture dictates that he or she who leads does so under relative restraint, damned by the short-termism that joins electorate and governors in a macabre dance.
The Collins question is even more clear-cut. Firstly, let’s roll back the notion that he was a Fine Gaeler.
The party, and the ethos and lineage that came to dominate it, was not yet born when the man died.
If anything, his brief skirmish with politics suggested somebody more temperamentally suited to what Fianna Fáil represented in the early decades of its incarnation.
There is absolutely nothing to indicate that Collins would have begun raising the newly born State any differently than others did.
Collins was a good administrator, showed great courage when it was required, and possessed a charismatic personality. Éamon de Valera had similar attributes, replacing, some might argue, courage with cunning. Would Collins have done any better than did WT Cosgrave, and his allies, in building a nation from the ruins of war? Even a divisive figure like Dev admitted that the first government of the Free State did a good job under tremendous internal and external pressures.
Would Collins have stood up better to the overweening power of the Church, or adopted more progressive economic policies to stem the bleeding wound of immigration? Highly unlikely. Indulging in ‘what ifs’ is an interesting exercise, but falling for the idea that a single figure, a lost leader, could have made things better is nearly always wide of the mark.
In 2008, the world thought that the election of Barack Obama would usher in a new era. Look where that’s ended. What if Obama had narrowly lost that election, or even his re-election two years ago? Many would now be pining for him as a lost leader who would have reshaped America at home, and the world abroad.
Leaders matter, particularly at times of crises. But the potential for one person to change the course of history, against a tide of forces, is greatly exaggerated. Politically, one integral element of leadership in a democracy is an ability to negotiate a way through vested interests and powerful lobbies to put flesh on ideas for the betterment of all.
Few have done that better than Bill Clinton in recent years. Reynolds did that, to a certain extent, in the peace process, but there’s precious little to suggest he would have even spotted the requirement for restraint through the excesses of the Celtic bubble.
Collins was capable of taking on the military forces of Great Britain, but there’s nothing to indicate that he would even have wanted to take on the social and civil forces to lead the country in a different direction.