Friday 31 October 2014

Editorial: Peace process his greatest gamble

Published 24/08/2014 | 02:30

Albert Reynolds

In a country where the default position on reform mostly mirrors Saint Augustine's views on chastity, former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds was a political iconoclast. Mr Reynolds, of course, was happier to define himself as a risk-taker. The comparison, though, holds - for in Irish public life iconoclast and risk-taker are synonymous terms. Nothing, alas, epitomises this more than the timid, indolent political response to our latest grotesque abortion controversy, where courageous action has been delegated to the next administration. Those who think such inaction is politically clever are confusing irresponsible cowardice and moral negligence with intelligence; were they but capable of recognising this.

By contrast, whilst Mr Reynolds possessed his fair share of political vices, nobody could accuse him of temerity or sloth. Intriguingly, despite the restless bright spirit he brought to the post, the defining feature of Albert Reynolds's term as Taoiseach was one of unease. Some of that was driven by the social snobbery of our provincial metropolitan elite over a 'Country and Western' loving Taoiseach from a 'trade' background. But, when it came to Albert and unease, more complex factors were at play. One of these, ironically, may be the reality that by the time Albert came to power the man whose core personal political definition was that of a modernising innovator appeared to be fatally dated. Albert was the creature of the world of Ballrooms of Romance. The Ireland which he took over was, however, in a process of transition towards the even more glittering Dreamlands of the Celtic Tiger.

Transition was occurring in innumerable other ways too. Prior to securing power, the most wounding comment made about his putative rival, Bertie Ahern, was that people wanted to know where the next Taoiseach would sleep at night. In fairness to Albert the pragmatist, he showed far greater courage in dealing with 'liberal' issues such as homosexuality than his successors who quiver fearfully at featherweight phantoms like gay marriage.

Mr Reynolds's greatest gamble consisted of the peace process. Though the benefits of his Northern policy is more qualified than the hagiographical herd insist, Mr Reynolds cannot be criticised for the current scenario where, like Germany in 1918, it is increasingly clear we and Sinn Fein would have benefited if the IRA had experienced a more comprehensive defeat than the gentle penalty of peace with power. In many ways his career is best summarised by the fable about the hedgehog and the fox which claims that whilst the fox knows many small things the hedgehog is superior because he knows one big thing. Nothing epitomises Albert's possession of the latter quality more than the legendary reshuffle on his first day in power. Though there was an element of internal revenge involved, Mr Reynolds on that day also almost chopped the Haughey cancer out of Fianna Fail. Ironically, even his unease with the concept of coalition was more prescient than appeared to be the case then for in the long run this culture has removed any points of difference from a political sphere now dominated by an amorphous amoral mulch of politically avaricious pragmatic foxes.

In the end, Albert was chopped up by those foxes. Much of the fault there belongs to the man who after a long tragic period of darkness finally 'broke even'. Albert, for all of his love of gambling, was never the best at knowing when to hold or fold them. There again, one supposes this is the defining quality of any iconoclast.

Sunday Independent

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