Monday 27 January 2020

An understated man, done down by snobbery

None of Albert's 
detractors had an 
ounce of his gumption or street smarts, 
says John Waters

Underestimated: Former Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds his wife Kathleen, and John Hume. Photo: David Conachy.
Underestimated: Former Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds his wife Kathleen, and John Hume. Photo: David Conachy.

John Waters

A couple of years ago, while I was chatting over coffee with a senior editor of a newspaper I wrote for at the time, he paused mid-sentence and declared: "Albert Reynolds".


"You should write about him!"

"Why?", I wondered. "Is he dead?"

"No. But he's your sort of thing."

I knew what was going on in his mind: pure prejudice, concerning both Albert and myself. In the editor's hippocampus, we were both filed under 'Country 'n' Western'. We were the same "sort of thing".

I wasn't offended, although I suspected my editor was hoping I would be. I have some sympathy for individuals who are accursed to live in a country they don't understand. When such a person looks at some personage or phenomenon that belongs to the fabric of actually existing Irish reality, he is missing some vital element, like irony, understatement, tongue-in-cheekiness or mischief. He sees only his own prejudices or, more precisely, those he shares with like-minded myopics.

There's a whole swathe of this society which looked upon Albert in that way: as a redneck in a cowboy hat, who drove around with the boot bursting with fivers, an accidental statesman who tired of reading halfway down the first page. Actually, Albert was a shrewd and civilised man who valued his time and wasn't above participating in a joke at his own expense. Hence, his one-off appearance on a TV chat show singing in the style of Jim Reeves while wearing a cowboy hat. The 'Country 'n' Western alliance' line, of course, was delivered with deadly effect by one Charles J, once the compadre of the man he now found himself needing to put down. But it was taken up - as Haughey knew it would be - by the enemies of both men, the kind of snobs who think the time of day you eat your dinner says something about your character.

Albert was a man who could make things happen because he believed in his ability to be the protagonist who could succeed. Although I'm not sure that Albert and I were the same "sort of thing", we had one thing in common: we both started out as railway clerks, he in Dromad and I in Claremorris. Years later, he confessed that he would get his railway clerking done by lunchtime and spend the rest of the day taking care of Albert's business. In all the afternoons I spent staring out the window of the railway goods store in Claremorris, it never crossed my mind 
to open a dancehall.

In recent days, we've heard about Albert's role in the peace process, his decisive intervention in the nation's telephone stasis, his role in priming the Irish economy in the crucial years before the Celtic Tiger. We noted Michael O'Leary pointing out that, had Albert been running the country in the decade or so after he was spancelled by the running dogs of Labour, we might now be in a better place. Reynolds had the small businessman's respect for money, and an unerring instinct for making it grow.

Had he not been forced to walk the plank in '94, he might well have led the country for another decade, applying his Rossie horse sense to national affairs. Those who cynically came looking for his head back then have never been asked to account for the possible deeper consequences, or explain to us precisely what quality of progress they were pursuing.

Albert put the teeth of certain people on edge because he represented a way of being politically intelligent that was indigenous rather than imported. Those who patronised his dancehall roots, his country way of talking, his dog-food factory and his once permanent tan, were all people who wanted to turn Ireland into a replica of someplace else. Albert understood that Ireland is a rural society studded with small towns. That understanding enabled him to become wealthy selling dancing and light petting to the public at a time when commentators had the country in the grip of Rome rule.

Albert was actually a confident cosmopolitan who could go anywhere and not pretend to be anything other than himself. He was a natural moderniser, contrary to the prejudices that grow'd like Topsy no matter what he said or did. It is nowadays overlooked that, from the start of his tenure as Taoiseach, he wielded a mean and radical axe, cleaning out the dead wood of the Haughey years, launching various liberal initiatives and plausibly promising to "let in the light" to the 
dark crevices of government.

Only a true fool would have bought Albert Reynolds for another. He was smart enough to know that change can be initiated as easily by one man as the next, and self-confident enough to understand that there was no good reason why he, Albert Reynolds, shouldn't be the one to make history. That confidence, as much as anything, created the conditions for the peace process, and many people are breathing on this island now who might not be if Albert had not passed the way.

It's hard to reconcile the orgy of sanctimony and hypocrisy that has ensued since Thursday with the kind of cant we heard back in 1992, when Albert dismissed a rumour about poor relations between himself and a cabinet colleague as "crap, pure crap".There followed a veritable tsunami of humbug, with commentators tut-tutting about the appalling spectacle of 'the Taoiseach of this country' uttering such a word. They shook their heads at the coarsening of public discourse and smirked at one another behind the public's back.

Albert was useful to the Labour Party, because he helped get rid of Haughey. Once in power, however, the Salomes of the Spring Tide couldn't resist the opportunity to take Albert out. It remains one of the most shameful episodes in recent political history, implicating several surviving figures who have yet to be adequately confronted about the treacherous and fraudulent nature of their roles.

When the dust had settled, a Dail committee found there was no basis to the accusations of interference by church figures in the matter of an extradition warrant for a known paedophile priest. It had all been crap, pure crap. But, from the plotters' perspective, all was well that ended well: Albert was gone and Labour was still in government, this time with Fine Gael and Democratic Left.

Albert was a nice man, I tell you. I didn't know him well, but always found him courteous and pleasant, even though we usually found ourselves on different sides of arguments concerning things like the Maastricht Treaty, in the course of which debate he would ask me if I had eight billion quid to give the exchequer if I persuaded the electorate to vote No.

The last time we met was at a funeral nearly a decade ago, when I ran into him on the way out of the graveyard and afterwards we sat together at lunch and talked about drink. He, a pioneer for many years, told me he had recently taken to drinking the odd glass of wine for health reasons. He was fascinated to learn 
that my journey had been pretty much the other way about.

The English philosopher Michael Oakeshott once made an observation to the effect that a countryman can figure out the city in an afternoon, whereas a city-bred person can spend a lifetime trying to work out the country and never have a clue. This is all we need to understand the Albert Reynolds story. Those who looked down their noses at Albert thought they were cleverer than he was, but none of them had a scintilla of his gumption or determination or, yes, street smarts. They just didn't get him, and therefore thought there wasn't much to get.

But there were depths to Albert that surpassed conventional notions of wit or wisdom. Sometimes he approached a kind of Zen level of deadpan summation, like on the famous occasion when Boris Yeltsin was too drunk to get off a plane at Shannon, where he was supposed to be greeted by the Taoiseach. After a lengthy wait, Russian officials emerged from the plane and explained that their president had suddenly been taken ill. Reynolds' shrug-accompanied response was pokerfaced and matter-of-fact: "If the man's sick, the man's sick". It was the answer of a Buddha, a master of diplomacy, a Longford leader in the art of pacification, kind and knowing and decisive, all at the same time.

On reflection, I owe that editor a word of thanks for the compliment. I would be proud to think that Albert Reynolds was my "sort of thing".

Sunday Independent

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