John-Paul McCarthy: What the gambler didn't know was that the house always wins
Albert Reynolds was a great risk-taker, always ready to wager the bank on one last spin, writes John-Paul McCarthy
Published 24/08/2014 | 02:30
One of the key scenes in Anthony Hopkins' stunning turn as Richard Milhous Nixon takes place as he is walking into a hostile meeting with the CIA director.
An aide warns Nixon that the CIA director is a "world- class poker player". Hopkins mutters in reply: "Yeah? Well, I own the fucking casino."
This reply speaks to the fundamentally illusory element in the risk-taking personality, and it rather haunted this week's coverage of Albert Reynolds' passing. Though possessed of all the guile and selfishness of a riverboat gambler, Reynolds never quite accepted the fact that someone else owned the various casinos he operated in, and that the house never loses for long.
The great risk-taker lasted a mere 34 months as Taoiseach in an environment that was controlled by Des O'Malley and Dick Spring - two men who found his statecraft to be less than edifying when seen up close, and who were immune to his my-word-is-my-bond mantra. (O'Malley's criticism of Reynolds in the Beef Tribunal effectively ended his first government just as surely as Spring did in 1994 in response to Reynolds' screwball approach to judicial appointments).
The gambling metaphor also helps to explain the analytical void at the core of Reynolds' premiership. No one today, for example, cares what he said about the abortion issue in 1992.
Why? Because gamblers really only care about themselves, and they do not rate abstract thought.
How did Reynolds fare, then, in the toughest house of all, Northern Ireland?
His former advisor Martin Mansergh told Pat Kenny this week that Reynolds "didn't put a foot wrong in that area".
This was asking a lot of listeners, perhaps even more than was required in digesting Dr Mansergh's oft-repeated claim that Charles Haughey represented "the spirit of the nation", this being the title of his edited speeches.
In fact, the imputation of flawless statecraft between 1992 and 1994 rankled as much as the suggestion that the 1994 IRA ceasefire was a product of "trust" - rather than belated recognition that they were hopelessly riddled with informers and had no prospect of anything like military victory.
Reynolds could be as casual and careless in Northern Ireland as he was in his coalitions. Despite the handsome mantle of statesman that former British PM John Major bestowed on him, Reynolds remained as much a product of the Haughey cosmos as Dr Mansergh.
Think of the testimony of the Cadogan Group in Northern Ireland on the constitutional aspects of the Downing Street Declaration. At the moment of his defenestration in 1994, they showed that Reynolds was still insisting on retaining the confrontational idea of a "national territory", the re-integration of which was said to be "a primary legislative objective of the Irish people."
Reynolds illustrated the full scale of his incomprehension in his longest and most significant speech as Taoiseach, his O Dalaigh Lecture at Barberstown Castle in January 1994. Here, he attacked partition as a breach of international law and sought fairly tenuous parallels in the experience of other partitioned countries such as Germany, Cyprus, China, Korea and even Yemen.
He presented himself here as an Irish version of South Korean Presidents Chun and Roh, two unity-by-consent statesmen, thereby casting the unionists by implication as Irish versions of the North Koreans. Miraculously, the British and the unionists did not fold after that meditation.
The irony of all this was well caught by Sean Duignan in his book, One Spin on the Merry-Go-Round, where he catalogued Reynolds' mounting irritation in private with John Hume's arrogance and presumption. And here he was probably closer to Liam Cosgrave and Jack Lynch, two Taoisigh who flatly refused to subcontract Irish government policy to the SDLP.
It is important to remember as well that the Downing Street Declaration of 1993 was not what Reynolds intended.
John Major declined to be a "persuader for Irish unity", and insisted on five separate references in the final text to the principle of consent, that is to say, no unification without the consent of a majority in Northern Ireland itself. (Bertie Ahern would go even further in 1998, by insisting on giving the Republic itself a veto over unification, irrespective of what a northern majority wanted).
Duignan's memoir closed on a suitably melancholy note. As the Reynolds team trooped down the big stairs in the Department of the Taoiseach, cabinet secretary Dermot Nally stood motionless at the bottom. He grasped Duignan's hand, and just shook his head wordlessly. The house always wins in the end.