Monday 20 January 2020

Mary, Dessie and Dick still staying silent on secrets of the Albert era

Former Minister for Health Mary Harney
Former Minister for Health Mary Harney

WHEN I saw Mary Harney strolling in the Dublin suburb of Monkstown a couple of weeks past it was impossible - at least for a few fleeting seconds - not to be transported back in time.

She has been out of the limelight since she decided to hustle off into the political twilight almost three years ago. But she was an enduring presence in our public life through countless moments of high drama. However, since she retired she has remained steadfastly schtum on the goings-on in Leinster House and further afield.

Her determined silence attained a special significance in recent days following the death of Albert Reynolds. Both she and Des O'Malley, her long-time partner in politics, failed to provide any assessment of the man with whom they had shared so much political jousting. Could it be that their low-key reaction tells its own story? And former Labour Party leader Dick Spring, while acknowledging Mr Reynold's contribution to the peace process, also seems to have tempered his comments to a minimum.

Yet this triumvirate of Harney, O'Malley, and Spring would have much to say about the Albert Reynolds era, should they wish to let us in on some of their secrets. The truth is that all three emerged as sworn enemies of Albert during his time as Taoiseach - and such was the bitterness and venom on all sides that it led to the collapse of two governments in a remarkably short period.

Many tributes were paid, and justifiably so, to Albert's swashbuckling, and often courageous, contribution to the peace process. He was, of course, greatly helped by the fact that his opposite number in Britain at the time, John Major, was essentially a reasonable and far-sighted politician. Luckily, he was unshackled by the traditions of hardline conservatism, unlike Margaret Thatcher. But Mr Major took the hard road in the cause of Ireland. The fact that he got a special round of applause at Albert's funeral was a heart-warming experience.

Many journalists have attested to a genuine likeability, which was part of Albert's persona. But the life and times of this complex politician was not as simple or as cheerful as his outward hail-fellow-well-met veneer might have suggested. And the Harney-O'Malley-Spring axis had an inside track on much of that. Perhaps we will never really know what led to all the suspicion and distrust which so poisoned their relationship with a politician who brought affability to such a high level in other parts of his life.

In a strange kind of way Ms Harney's political career mirrored that of the man who would be Taoiseach for such a short time. Both reached dizzying levels of achievement, only to see things peter out, as the endgame in their careers approached. In the political world they both shared a strong sense of destiny, coupled with enormous self-belief, and a determination to forge their own pathway, come what may.

Mary Harney was only 24, and shortly out of college, when she became the youngest-ever member of the Seanad. In her prime she emerged as one of the most innovative and impressive Irish politicians in the history of the state. When her political world was turned upside down during the reign of Charles Haughey, she became one of the driving forces in the creation of a new political phenomena known as the Progressive Democrats.

Ms Harney is reputed to have said "the worst day in government is better than the best day in opposition'' and it is a mantra she put to full effect throughout her career. The turbulence between the PDs and Haughey's Fianna Fail has been well documented - yet it never stopped either side trying to do business with one another when power was at stake.

Despite personal antipathy between Haughey on the one hand, and Mr O'Malley, Ms Harney and the PDs on the other, all were capable of building up a reasonable degree of working trust for periods in government. And, of course, later on, Ms Harney and Bertie Ahern forged a solid and professional working relationship.

But it was not the case with Albert. There was suspicion and personal loathing on all sides. The net result is that, despite all the striving over so much time, Albert could only hold down the job of Taoiseach for less than three years. So why was the usually gregarious deal-maker from Longford-Westmeath so touchy?

In fairness, those who were there during this period have pointed out that personalities such as Mr O'Malley and Mr Spring were also no shrinking violets when fighting their respective corners.

But, for some reason, relations with Albert seemed doomed almost from the word go. All the key players remained edgy and wary of one another. Albert's old street-fighting instincts were never too far beneath the surface and he was always determined to get his retaliation in first.

It's now all so much water under the bridge, but there are many mysteries and unanswered questions surrounding the time when Albert was Taoiseach. The other key players in the drama have done little to enlighten us, and their silence on the high-risk politics which brought down two governments with breathtaking speed has continued in recent days. Ms Harney and Mr O'Malley, so long at the heartbeat of PD politics, really had an inside track on those days.

Albert was certainly a much more soulful man than some of the understandably fulsome tributes in recent days have suggested. His multi- faceted personality, plus some inner demons, meant his time as Taoiseach was remarkably short. After years of striving he landed the top job - and then he blew it. Those who knew him well during the ebb and flow of those times, Ms Harney, Mr O'Malley and Mr Spring, surely have some secrets they might share. But they ain't saying anything for now.

Maybe never!

Gerard O’Regan

Irish Independent

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