Albert's motto: 'confound the doubters, make it happen'
Albert Reynolds was a compassionate man with a real sense of fairness, writes former Taoiseach Brian Cowen
Published 24/08/2014 | 02:30
Since former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds passed away in the early hours of Thursday morning, the many tributes paid to him have been generous and justified. The first thoughts of all who knew Albert are with his wife Kathleen and his family at this sad time. His was a life well lived. He was a man of many parts.
When I think of Albert, I remember fondly his warm and engaging personality, his boundless energy and his huge enthusiasm for life, which was an infectious part of his character. It is clear that Albert Reynolds had decided from an early age to make a name for himself, firstly in business and later in politics.
Albert was blessed with a great sense of self-belief that helped him overcome adversities and forge a prosperous and happy life for himself and his family. His make-up was such that when he committed himself to a course of action, he would pursue it to the end without fear or favour.
He had an innately optimistic view of life and all its challenges. Albert viewed every problem as an opportunity to succeed rather than a signpost to failure. In fact, the type of resilient person he was determined what he would do and how he would do it. His motto always seemed to be "take it on, confound the doubters, make it happen."
Put simply, Albert had a great sense of purpose in any task he set himself. And he always gave an impression that every voyage towards completing those tasks would be a bit of an adventure with friends to be made along the way.
However, Albert was also always open about the fact that there would be good days and bad days and many ups and downs in political life. He certainly had his share of them. But his ability to take the kudos or the knocks when they came should never have been viewed, as it was mistakenly by some, as an indication that he was not serious about his work. He was deadly serious when it mattered. His business success and enduring political achievements are eloquent testament to that fact.
Albert Reynolds's affability and kind-hearted nature were genuine aspects of his character. He was a compassionate man with a real sense of fairness. He was often moved to show his emotions. He had a natural empathy with people and their problems. He showed a genuine concern when people brought their worries and concerns to his attention. He intuitively understood that they were relying on him at a time of difficulty and he would always try to help where and when he could. Albert was a good man who knew his people and his constituents knew him.
Like all of us, his home and local sense of place shaped him. Those values he picked up from hard-working and loving parents informed his behaviour in life and have been passed on to his own family today. Knowing him as I did, I have no doubt he regarded the excellent and loving family that he and Kathleen raised together as his life's greatest achievement.
For the rest of us, the success of his public career will have an enduring impact on the life of the nation. He was a dynamic minister in successive Fianna Fail-led governments.
In his first ministerial role, when he was appointed to Charles Haughey's government in 1979, his businesslike approach in transforming and modernising what was a totally antiquated telecommunications infrastructure into a state-of-the-art digital network was a far-seeing, strategic and necessary step in preparing Ireland as a credible location for international investment in later decades.
In 1982, in a short-lived administration of just eight months, Albert, as minister for industry and energy, oversaw, on time and within budget, the completion of all necessary negotiations and the construction of the Cork-Dublin gas line project, arising from a large find in the Kinsale Gas Field. This was an excellent forerunner of how major infrastructural projects of national significance should be undertaken.
On returning to cabinet in 1987, as part of a minority Fianna Fail government faced with extraordinarily difficult economic circumstances, Albert focused on ways to expand and diversify the industrial base of the country. Importantly, he set up a forum of top Irish-American business people in world-class companies, including many leading high-tech firms, to help promote Ireland as a location for investment. He worked closely with the IDA. This successful strategy led to Intel and other multi-nationals locating in Ireland, bringing major investment and employment opportunities in their train. Extraordinarily, within 15 years, building on the foundations of these pioneering investments, Ireland was to become the biggest software exporter in the world.
When Ray MacSharry became agriculture commissioner in 1988, Albert moved to the Department of Finance. Given Ireland's high rate of national debt at this time, he decided to use the tax system to enhance investment and productivity. In his budgets, he reduced personal tax rates and widened tax bands to help boost people's spending power and to promote domestic demand for goods and services. He chose to lower corporation tax for manufacturing companies and he incentivised spending in plant and machinery for industry, as part of a deliberate policy to increase our national productivity and export capacity. Crucially, in terms of the continuing management of our national debt, he set up the National Treasury Management Agency, which employed experienced investors and professionals, and reduced the annual interest payments on our debt from IR£2.2bn to IR£1bn within five years.
On taking office as Taoiseach in February 1992, Albert Reynolds set out a clear political vision that linked peace with prosperity. Those under 30 years of age today in Ireland, thankfully, have no real recollection of the toll of human suffering and carnage, which 30 years of violence had brought to Ireland. The level of distrust and hatred those divisions caused was catastrophic. The lives of innocent people were destroyed by men of violence trapped in a cul-de-sac of murder and mayhem. The cost to our country in both financial terms and missed opportunities for investment was incalculable. I saw at first-hand the huge efforts he put into changing a dismal reality into tangible prospects of hope for the future through the sheer force of his personality, and by operating a network of contacts he had built up over the years, both at home and abroad, in business and politics.
The peace process was the work of many people and due credit has been given to all who participated in good faith. But there is no doubt in my mind that without the commitment of Albert Reynolds as Taoiseach, using the political authority of that office and the diplomatic muscle at the disposal of his administration, that the political progress made in his time towards a lasting reconciliation on this island could not have happened.
The significance of the Downing Street Declaration was that it committed the then British prime minister John Major and subsequent British governments, to working in partnership with the Irish government and all the parties in finding an inclusive and comprehensive settlement. This declaration's importance as a prelude to the ceasefires cannot be over-emphasised.
The involvement of President Bill Clinton's administration and his promise of an economic dividend in the context of a successful conclusion to peace talks was another important building block Albert fostered as Taoiseach. At the same time, the impact of the unprecedented EU Cohesion and Structural Funds he had negotiated at the Edinburgh Summit in December 1992, accelerated the potential growth rate of our economy for years to come. He was clear about the prospects of future prosperity and social advancement if peace was allowed to take root as a result.
With his passing, Albert Reynolds's role as a game-changer in Ireland's political, economic and social development is now for historians and posterity to record in the annals of the affairs of this nation. I believe that his family and friends can be proud of the honoured and valued place he will surely be accorded there. For my own part, I respected him greatly. I was proud to serve with him and prouder still to know him as a friend.