Thursday 18 December 2014

Taoiseach who earned his spurs as peacemaker

Despite being mocked for his cowboy image, Albert Reynolds was a lucky gambler, writes John Drennan

Published 22/12/2013 | 02:30

Albert Reynolds
Bertie Ahern, Charlie Haughey and Albert Reynolds. Photo: Maxpix
Gerry Adams and John Hume flanking Albert Reynolds during peace talks on the North

Even before the public revelations that he is losing the cruellest of wars with Alzheimer's there was a sense within politics that Albert Reynolds was Ireland's lost Taoiseach. By lost we mean that he was one of those rare politicians who, on becoming Taoiseach, stayed for too short rather than too long a spell in office.

Such an analysis would come as quite the surprise to his contemporaries for Albert was certainly not a loved Taoiseach; particularly among the media.

Some never forgave him for his role as one of the hungry, sharp-toothed young men who shunted 'honest' Jack Lynch off the political stage.

Others, from the more aristocratic wing of the Irish political process, never got the country and western persona that reached its full, horrifying apotheosis (for the Sancerre sippers of Sandymount) with an appearance by Albert on the Live Mike in a cowboy suit where our man sang 'Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone'. And in fairness something of the political cowboy surrounded Albert and his close relations with country and western types such as Pee Flynn.

Urban, patrician Ireland was not at all at ease either with the dog-food business, the ballroom dancing or colourful tales about how Albert's political sidekick, councillor Mickey Doherty, accidentally sparked a currency crisis.

The unfortunate event occurred when Doherty, who famously claimed his only education, was "two summonses for not going to school" was left manning the phones in Albert's Longford office the day after the disastrous election of 1992.

Albert had taken to the bed so Doherty, faced by a raft of journalists, attempted to disguise this fact by claiming that the Taoiseach was chairing a cabinet meeting on a currency crisis. It is all too typical of the time that the musings of a poor confused councillor from Longford had the unintended consequence of causing the Irish pound and, astonishingly, the all-powerful Deutsch- mark to plunge in the world markets.

Ultimately outside of snobbery, the biggest problem with Albert is that in a deeply conservative country the man who famously said he liked his facts on "a single sheet" was a political gambler.

It was a trait that brought unique qualities to Irish politics for Albert didn't just sweep Haughey into power.

When no one else in a palsied Cabinet would raise the sword, Albert was the man who swept Haughey out of power. In that famous St Valentine's Day massacre of the then Cabinet in 1992 he then almost swept all of Haughey's old regime out except, fatally, for Bertie.

Significantly, in booting Haughey and 'Rambo' Burke out, Albert brought in a new regime incorporating Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, Charlie McCreevy and Brian Cowen.

One can only wonder how Irish politics would have evolved had Bertie, his Drumcondra mafia and Haughey's old crew not swept back into power. It was that gambler's streak that also informed the high-wire dramas of the nascent peace process and the 'rough trading' that brought back the famous €8bn in structural funds.

Reynolds might have been mocked for being a "one-page" man, but, unlike so many other politicians, Albert could understand the balance sheet written on that single page.

Indeed, there are many who wish that on the night of the infamous banking guarantee Albert, as distinct from his protege, had been there waiting for the banks when they stepped into Government Buildings on shaky legs.

And despite all that backwoodsman talk, even when experiencing the ashes of defeat, the former ardent anti-coalitionist was a revolutionary enough thinker to see, much to the horror of some within Labour, the latent possibilities of a Fianna Fail-Labour coalition.

Many, including the Labour participants, still nostalgically believe, despite the ferocity of the feuds that characterised relations at the top, that the subsequent coalition was the best government in the history of the State.

Ironically, it was the success of a government that after decades of turbulence was bringing peace, prosperity and political reform to our querulous State that left Albert so fatally complacent when it came to that final bust-up with Dick Spring.

From that moment when Bertie gazumped the leadership of Fianna Fail, Albert was our lost Taoiseach.

He was our lost Taoiseach in another critical fashion for no post-war Taoiseach experienced as much as Albert in so short a spell in power.

It is impossible to know what he might have achieved for when he gambled big, in the manner of a latter-day Donagh O'Malley, the prizes, be it the rough trading that secured the unprecedented stimulus of the structural funds, or facing down John Major so aggressively in Downing Street that the British PM snapped a pencil he was holding, Albert won beyond the realm of any ordinary politician.

However, when he lost Albert tended to lose the house as well as the pot.

In the end of the day, unlike Kenny Rogers' famous gambler "on a train bound for no-where" Albert was never the best at knowing "when to hold and when to fold them."

However, in the real balance of things, if you tot up the wins and the losses, the flaws that made Albert so accident-prone in the retention of power were far outweighed by the history-making virtues that secured the achievement of peace in Northern Ireland.

Irish Independent

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