Albert Reynolds and I used our heated exchanges to plot a new path to peace
Published 23/08/2014 | 02:30
I first met Albert Reynolds 25 years ago when we were both finance ministers, but only came to know him well after his appointment as Taoiseach.
As prime minister, I had been surprised to learn there were no regular meetings between UK ministers and those of our nearest neighbour in Ireland, and agreed with the then Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, to institute them. When Mr Haughey was replaced by Albert Reynolds, the meetings began and Anglo-Irish relations became much closer.
My first meeting with Albert ended with a private discussion in the White Drawing Room of No 10. Without officials, formalities were dropped. I learnt that he was as horrified as I was over the mayhem in Northern Ireland and on the mainland, and wished to end it. As Taoiseach, he favoured above all a united Ireland, but mostly he wanted to see an end to the bloodshed. "What can we do about it?" he asked. "I mean, you and I, John. It's our responsibility now."
We discussed options. None was easy. All were long term and carried risks. We knew that widespread consent was essential if we were to succeed. To Albert, none of the risks was a deterrent in seeking an agreement that could save lives. That meeting was the informal beginning of the peace process. We began work on what was to become - after many setbacks - the Downing Street Declaration, which ultimately laid down "the right of self-determination on the basis of consent freely and concurrently given, [by the people of] North and South, to bring about a united Ireland if that is their wish".
The concept was not new and had originally been suggested by Haughey, building on an idea by John Hume, the leader of the SDLP, who in 1998 would share the Nobel Peace Prize with David Trimble. But early Irish drafts were quite unacceptable, and only when Albert and Dick Spring, then Tanaiste, came to No 10 did fresh - and serious - work proceed.
Negotiations were protracted - mostly friendly, occasionally frosty, and sometimes agreement was reached only after serious arguments. None the less, slowly we began to move forward. Albert believed, as I did, that if the British and Irish governments could agree on a joint way forward, we would succeed in isolating the men of violence. Nevertheless, the impediments of history, partisanship and differing preferred outcomes were daunting. So was the politics. Albert was beset by domestic pressure from many sources, including the SDLP, Sinn Fein and - I have no doubt - the IRA. I faced a sceptical Conservative Party, Protestant hostility and a suspicious and divided cabinet.
On both sides there were Jeremiahs waiting for the process to fail, and Albert philosophically expected to be engulfed in criticism. "They want me to go down in flames," he once remarked, "and I might." He then cheered up and added: "And you might, too."
During the process of discussion nothing was straightforward, and Albert and I were both frequently firefighting domestic opposition. Nonetheless, our belief that an Anglo-Irish accord was possible and could change decades of suspicion and hatred between the opposing groups fuelled the search for an agreement satisfactory to both sides. Officials worked tirelessly on papers to agree language both governments could accept, and Albert and I chaired separate meetings, had snatched conversations at European and international meetings, met together with officials, and sometimes settled disparate points in private meetings or on the telephone.
Albert was a dealmaker with a mission, and his commitment was crucial to success. We believed we could reach agreement and - after a final colossal row at Dublin Castle (Albert objected to British use of a "back channel" and I objected to damaging press leaks from the Irish side) - we did.
Many people played a role in the Downing Street Declaration, but it could not have happened without Albert Reynolds.
Despite the rows, Albert and I became firm friends soon after we met. Indeed, in a curious way, our heated exchanges helped: they revealed the depth of feeling on both sides and exposed vividly the areas of disagreement that had to be bridged.
We learnt the problems each side faced, as well as one another's faults, and we understood them. Our private meetings frequently veered into wider discussions - often about our families and life after politics. Albert's family were - and are - a delight. His wife Kathleen and the children were always at the heart of his life; he once remarked, following an atrocity: "Suppose that was my family?" In that remark I saw, exposed and evident, the raw emotion, the distaste for violence, that underpinned his willingness to make concessions that might bring an agreement closer.
Albert was not without faults. He could rarely pass a microphone without comment. He thought aloud and in company and was never Trappist in his views - even when he should have been.
He could be cavalier in his concept of what was agreed. But he was brave, determined, open-hearted, and preferred agreement to dissent and friendship to enmity. Ideology was not in his nature.
He was a pragmatist in search of a deal. In that old-fashioned phrase, he was a good man: good to do business with, and good to have as a friend.
Some people, when they are gone, fade in the memory. Albert never will. He will not be forgotten by those who loved him or worked with him - or simply knew him. He was that kind of man. Albert was a one-off: and I, among many others, will miss him.