Saturday 18 January 2020

Reynolds's legacy raises question: 'what do we want from politicians?'

Why don't we reward rare politicians willing to take risks? asks Shane Coleman

John Major with the late Albert Reynolds
John Major with the late Albert Reynolds

WHAT do we want from our politicians? More importantly, what do we want from our Taoisigh? These two questions seem particularly appropriate in the week of Albert Reynolds' passing.

Because make no mistake Reynolds was unique. Of the 13 Taoisigh since the foundation of the State, the vast majority were life-long, career politicians.

Reynolds wasn't the only one who had a professional life before politics - John A Costello and Garrett FitzGerald were successful in law and economics/media - but his background in business means he is without parallel, certainly in modern times.

Reynolds was middle aged before he was elected to the Dáil in 1977, by which point he was a wealthy man having been involved in multiple business ventures, including ballrooms, newspapers, pet food, a meat plant, a pub and a finance company.

And that is the key to understanding Reynolds as Taoiseach. That background was fundamental to everything he did, not least his drive to bring peace to Northern Ireland.

And that made him different. Despite the negative public perception, the vast majority of people who go into politics do so for noble reasons - to help people and their community. But somewhere along the way, the majority, for entirely pragmatic political reasons, end up being made captive by the system.

Politics becomes more than a passion. It's a job. It's a way of paying the mortgage and supporting a family. It's a responsibility to the people who helped put you there. What, after all, is always cited as the first rule of politics? To get elected. The compromises involved in that are obvious.

It would be simplistic to say that Reynolds was completely free of such pressures. You don't top the poll in seven successive elections - as he did - and become Fianna Fáil leader and Taoiseach without playing the political game to some degree. It's also facile to believe that a successful business person will automatically replicate that success in political life. It doesn't work like that. They're very different fields and political nous is essential.

But there's no doubt that Reynolds's independent wealth and his background as a risk taker in business liberated him in a way that most politicians, however talented and well meaning, can never achieve.

That risk-taking instinct was so central to his efforts on the Peace Process. It's easy to forget now two decades on but, when Reynolds became Taoiseach, Sinn Féin and the Loyalist paramilitaries were pariahs. Reaching out to them was career suicide for mainstream politicians.

But Reynolds, with an entrepreneur's clarity of purpose, never saw it in such terms. His view was that these people were central to the problem. Solving that problem without involving them was impossible. So let's deal with them.

It was both incredibly simple and radical. At the time, even those closest to him in government doubted whether it could be done. To many of us, it seemed impossibly naive. We now know who was being naive.

There's no question that those very strengths that helped get the Peace Process off the ground proved considerable weaknesses in more conventional, day-to-day politics.

Reynolds' inability or refusal to play the percentages, to weigh up the pros and cons, to wait until he had everybody with him, to keep his friends close and his enemies closer, proved his undoing. He was stubborn; used to doing things his way, based on a hunch or instinct. That worked so well for him in business. In coalition politics, given the compromises required, that was always going to end in tears.

To bring down one government might be regarded as misfortune, to bring down two - as Reynolds did, incredibly, in less than three years - looked like carelessness. But actually does any of that really matter? To get back to the question asked in the very first line, what do we want from our Taoisigh?

Would we prefer a leader who clings to power; wins elections; keeps the government ticking along or one who is determined to make a difference regardless of potential political cost?

Reynolds always gave the impression of a Taoiseach in a hurry, someone more concerned about making a mark than getting re-elected or serving for 10 years.

He made loads of mistakes. And those mistakes meant that, by the end of his tenure, he was a pretty unpopular leader. He was an electoral liability to Fianna Fáil in 1992 and the prospect of facing into a general election with him two years later, in the wake of the collapse of the FF-Labour coalition, was unthinkable. It's also ignored, amid all the controversy over his shafting by Fianna Fáil when he went for the nomination for the presidency, that he would never have won that 1997 Presidential election. He was seen as out of touch with modern Ireland.

By Enoch Powell's definition, Reynolds's career certainly ended in failure. But only in the very restrictive, conventional sense where we measure political success by elections won and personal popularity.

Because ultimately Reynolds did what few other Taoisigh have done - WT Cosgrave and Sean Lemass being obvious exceptions - he left behind a considerable legacy that history will judge well. And he did so because he was willing to take risks for peace.

The question for us the electorate is: are we willing to reward those rare politicians willing to take such risks, and sometimes failing, or do we want to continue with the 'tried and trusted'?.

÷ Shane Coleman is the presenter of the Sunday Show on Newstalk 106-108FM.

Irish Independent

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