RYLE DWYER: Taoiseach who went from top of the world to rock bottom in one week

THE publication of Albert Reynolds’s autobiography revives memories of an interesting and exciting period.

Reynolds was Taoiseach from 1992 to 1994, the shortest tenure of any holder of the office. In that time he managed to sink two different coalitions.

To sink one government might have been unlucky, but to do it twice was downright reckless. I remember within a week of Dick Spring bringing down the government, one of his supporters said to him publicly that Reynolds had grabbed all the glory for himself in bringing about the Northern ceasefire.

Spring immediately corrected him. For all the animosity that existed between himself and Reynolds at the time, Spring said that Reynolds went out on a limb and deserved all the credit he got in relation to the North.

Reynolds’s memoirs provide a real insight into the events behind the scenes leading to the ceasefire in 1994. This is especially poignant in the week that the UDA has finally agreed to decommission all its weapons, even though dissident republican elements were responsible for a massive unexploded bomb found near the border.

One of the intriguing aspects of the book is how Reynolds had seemingly infinite patience in dealing with so-called republicans and no patience at all in dealing with Des O’Malley and Dick Spring with whom he was in coalition. This lack of patience with them led to his undoing.

From the outset he described the coalition with the PDs as “a temporary little arrangement.” He basically had little time for the PD leader Des O’Malley because he believed O’Malley had no time for him ever since he told the Limerick deputy to his face that he would not support him for the leadership of Fianna Fáil in 1979.

“It was clear he had no respect for me because I had refused to vote for him,” Reynolds writes. “I sensed from the very beginning that our relationship was already too soured for the coalition to survive for long. I guessed it would be a rocky road and it was.”

The ultimate indignity came when O’Malley criticised Reynolds’s handling of the export credit insurance on the beef deal with Iraq. Reynolds seethed over the criticism and when he appeared before the tribunal, he retaliated against O’Malley.

“He puffed up Goodman’s claim for what I regard as cheap political gain,” Reynolds told the tribunal. “He was reckless, irresponsible and dishonest to do that here in the tribunal.” Talking about reckless, Reynolds’s behaviour in essentially accusing O’Malley of perjury at the tribunal was the epitome of political recklessness. No self-respecting person could be expected to have stood for that, and the PDs promptly pulled the plug on the government.

In the ensuing general election the PDs gained four seats, while Fianna Fáil lost nine. In the circumstances one might have expected that Fine Gael would have gained, but it actually contrived to lose 10 seats, which was even more than Fianna Fáil. The Labour party was the big winner . The “Spring Tide” saw Labour return with a record 33 seats. Reynolds contends that “Dick Spring, elated with the result, suggested a ‘rotating’ Taoiseach.”

He seems to be suggesting that the result had gone to Spring’s head and he had developed some delusions, but Spring had actually campaigned on a platform calling for a rotating Taoiseach.

Fine Gael had rubbished the idea, and John Bruton began behaving like he had won the election, even though his party was actually the biggest loser.

Reynolds might have seemed finished at that stage but with the help of British prime minister John Major and German chancellor Helmut Kohl, the EU pledged over £8 billion in structural and cohesion funds for Ireland.

Reynolds deservedly got much of the credit, and he felt this was the enticement that won over the Labour party to form a partnership government in which he remained Taoiseach.

Whatever about Reynolds’s difficulties with Des O’Malley, there was even less chance that O’Malley and Spring would have got on together. On the day the new Dáil met for the first time, O’Malley castigated Spring for having the nerve to talk with Democratic Left about joining a coalition. Without the PDs, a rainbow coalition would have been impossible, so Fianna Fáil was always the more likely alternative for the Labour party. Spring possibly hoped Reynolds had learned a lesson in bringing down his first coalition, but relations between them were prickly from the outset.

Labour greatly distrusted some elements of Fianna Fáil and their business practices. Although Charlie Haughey’s cosy arrangements with Ben Dunne and others had not yet been exposed, they were suspected. Eyebrows were immediately raised when it was disclosed that the Arab Masri family had invested £1 million in the Reynolds pet food factory and received Irish passports as part of their return.

“I told Dick Spring that he was welcome to inspect the Department of Justice files on the Masri deal and was somewhat taken aback when he said he had already done so!” Reynold noted, “For once I was speechless.” Spring would have been both reckless and irresponsible if he had not checked the story out. Michael McDowell denounced him anyway as “morally brain dead” over his handling of the episode.

Much of the autobiography deals with moves behind the scenes to arrange the ceasefire in the North. In addition to the contacts with people like John Major, Bill Clinton, Ted Kennedy, his sister Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith, and publisher Niall O’Dowd, there were also Reynolds’s clandestine meetings with leading loyalists like Gusty Spence, David Ervine and Billy Hutchinson. Martin Mansergh, Rev Roy Magee and Archbishop Robin Eames also played vital roles as emissaries.

EVEN though his wife Kathleen was the only person he told about many of those contacts, Reynolds took great umbrage when he leaned that Major had not told him about secret British contacts with the Provos. This led to a very tense meeting between the two of them.

“It was the frankest and fiercest exchange I had with any fellow leader in my six and a half years as prime minister,” Major wrote.

“I raged and he raged,” Reynolds recalled. “I chewed his bollocks off and he took lumps out of me.”

Reynolds was brought down after he insisted on appointing attorney general Harry Whelehan as president of the High Court. There was no political motive behind the appointment, but the Taoiseach was obviously exasperated at Spring’s reluctance to agree to it, especially when he sought another delay to examine whether Whelehan was not in any way involved in a growing scandal about a delay in extraditing the paedophile priest Brendan Smyth.

One week Reynolds was on top of the world, having done so much to organise the ceasefire, and the next he was finished politically. “I felt like a parrot on the great ocean liner, watching the ship’s magician doing a disappearing trick,” Government press secretary Seán Duignan told Gerry Ryan. “Just as he cried ‘abracadabra,’ the liner hit an iceberg, turned turtle and almost instantly slid under the waves, leaving nothing but a few bits of flotsam, onto which the parrot fluttered, looked around and said: ‘Fantastic. How the f*** did he do that? ’ ”


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