On the eve of the 25th anniversary of Albert Reynolds becoming taoiseach, Ryle Dwyer examines a volatile career which saw him scupper coalitions but help build peace.
‘WE COULD have lived in easier times,” Máire Geoghegan Quinn told the Fianna Fáil ard fheis in 1991. “We could all pick moments we wouldn’t want to live through again. But, I can say with absolute certainty to all of you, and for all of you, there will never be a time like it again. Never such excitement, never such achievement, never such heartache, never such happiness as the time they will talk of as the Haughey era.”
The Haughey era came to an end with the election of Albert Reynolds as taoiseach on February 11, 1992. If the people of Fianna Fáil thought they had come to the end of their political rollercoaster ride, they were in for a surprise, because there were even more ups and downs on the way.
Reynolds was first elected to the Dáil in the Fianna Fáil landslide of 1977. Little over a couple of years later he was one of the Gang of Five — along with Jackie Fahey, Tom McEllistrim, Seán Doherty, and Mark Killilea — who led the heave against Jack Lynch that brought Charles J Haughey to power in December 1979.
That was the first real heave within Fianna Fáil, but it was to portend several others during the next decade and half. Lynch had intended to retire as Taoiseach anyway, but he decided to step down early when George Colley assured him that he had the votes to succeed him. The bulk of the cabinet obviously supported Colley, but they over-estimated his support on the backbenches.
There was an unsuccessful heave against Haughey in October 1982 when Charlie McCreevy proposed a motion of no confidence in the leadership at a parliamentary party meeting. Reynolds backed Haughey during that unsuccessful heave. After losing power shortly afterwards, Haughey also survived a secret ballot after Ben Briscoe tabled a motion calling for his removal at the parliamentary party meeting of February 7, 1983. Reynolds apparently backed him on that occasion.
It was almost 10 years before there was another heave. That was when the Kildare deputy Seán Power announced he was proposing the removal of Haughey as taoiseach at a parliamentary party meeting on November 9, 1992.
Reynolds promptly announced he was supporting Power’s motion. “For some time now there has been considerable political instability, which has led to an erosion of confidence in our democratic institutions,” Reynolds declared. “This uncertainty must not be allowed to continue. The country needed “strong and decisive leadership.”
On the day of the challenge, Haughey was confident enough to have an amendment tabled calling for a vote of confidence in his leadership. After deliberations extended beyond 13 hours, Haughey won by 55 votes to 22.
But shortly after came the revelation by another member of the Gang of Five — former minister for justice Seán Doherty — that he had told Haughey about the phone tapping in 1982 of two journalists, Geraldine Kennedy and Bruce Arnold. That was the final straw that forced Haughey to step down.
Reynolds took over as taoiseach on February 11, 1992. Despite his call for political stability, he promoted further uncertainly by bringing down his own coalition government before the end of the year. He did this by essentially accusing Des O’Malley, the leader of Progressive Democrats — with which Fianna Fáil was in coalition — of perjuring himself before the Beef Tribunal.
Testifying before that tribunal himself on October 27, 1992, Reynolds stated that O’Malley’s testimony in July had been “reckless, irresponsible and dishonest”. Although pressed to clarify whether he was accusing his government colleague of perjury, Reynolds dodged the question.
“Perjury is your word,” he told senior counsel Adrian Hardiman, “dishonesty is mine.”
Hardiman picked up on that and asked if this meant that O’Malley’s evidence had merely been incorrect as distinct from dishonest. Reynolds considered, before answering with just one word — “dishonest”. This was clearly an “allegation of perjury” in O’Malley’s opinion, so the Progressive Democrats withdrew from the coalition and brought down the government. In the ensuing general election, the Labour Party won its highest ever total of 33 seats, but it was not in a position to form a majority government with any single party other than Fianna Fáil.
Reynolds confidently predicted the availability to the incoming government of grants of £6bn in European structural and cohesion funds. This would be sufficient to attract Labour into a coalition with Fianna Fáil. Although the taoiseach was accused of exaggerating the extent of the available funds, he actually secured a promise of £8bn at the European summit in Edinburgh, and the first Fianna Fáil/Labour coalition — or what they called a partnership government — was duly formed.
In the following months, Reynolds distinguished himself in relation to Northern Ireland. He developed an extraordinary relationship with British prime minister John Major, and they concluded the Downing Street Declaration on December 15, 1993.
The declaration affirmed the right to self-determination of the people of Ireland and Northern Ireland. If a majority of the people of Northern Ireland desired, jurisdiction would be transferred from the United Kingdom to the Republic of Ireland. The concept of an “Irish dimension” was also agreed, by which the people of the two parts of the island had a right to resolve issues by mutual consent. Paramilitary organisations were accorded the right to engage in negotiations, provided they renounced violence.
This played a key role in fostering a change of attitude among republican and loyalists militants, which led to discussions prompting both the Provisional IRA and the Combined Loyalist Military Command to agree to a ceasefire. The declaration was ultimately a major factor in leading to the Good Friday Agreement.
Despite his magnificent role in developing the Northern Peace Process, Reynolds up-scuttled his government again in November 1994 by forcing the appointment of Harry Whelehan as president of the high court without the approval of his coalition partners.
The Labour Party had reservations about Whelehan’s possible role in delaying the extradition to Northern Ireland of the paedophile priest Brendan Smith.
“You cross the big hurdles, and when you get to the small ones, you get tripped up,” Reynolds told the press corps in the Dáil gallery after his resignation. He served as taoiseach more than a year less than any of his predecessors, but his promotion of the peace process stands as a testimony to his memory and an invaluable legacy.
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