So another old beast of the Peace Process era leaves the stage. Albert Reynolds is too easily forgotten in the sense that he was only taoiseach for less than three years. Yet in that time between Haughey and Bruton its widely acknowledged that he played a crucial role in bringing Sinn Fein and the IRA into mainstream negotiations.
As the BBC’s obit piece notes…
… with a mixture of carrot and stick, [Reynolds] was instrumental in persuading republicans to end their commitment to violent struggle and to agree to peace negotiations with other Northern Ireland political groupings.
He said at the time: “The IRA have nowhere to go. I’ve stripped away all their excuses, one by one.”
Reynolds did much to convince John Major that Sinn Fein’s change of policy was sincere, and he helped bring the US administration on board.
As Noel Whelan noted this morning on Twitter…
— noelwhelan (@noelwhelan) August 21, 2014
And there’s also this interestingly little snippet from Brian Rowan in which Reynold’s emphasises the importance of a full cessation of violence…
What Reynolds was prepared to do for Adams if full cessation. Speaking to me in BBC interview pic.twitter.com/MPjPhNJYYJ
— Brian Rowan (@BrianPJRowan) August 21, 2014
It was not an easy or internally popular root to take, as the Telegraph’s obit notes:
When his deputy and coalition partner, the Labour leader Dick Spring, joined him to work on the Downing Street Declaration, he was shocked to learn of the extent of negotiations with the IRA. Spring was anxious to keep his distance, so Reynolds pushed on alone.
That first ceasefire and the involvement of John Major in the process was the first public fruits of a process that had already begun by his predecessor, Charlie Haughey.
Domestically, in Coalition with Labour’s Dick Spring his government brought an end to the criminalisation of homesexuality and the legalisation of the sale of contraceptives. But otherwise he proved a seriously ill-starred political leader.
His premiership only outlasted the IRA ceasefire by several months, when it came to light that his own Attorney General, the ultra conservative Catholic Harry Whelehan had let two extradition warrants for the paedophile Catholic Priest Brendan Smith from the RUC languish in his office for seven months.
As the Telegraph also notes, it scandalised the press at the time, not least because Reynolds had pressed ahead with his intention of appointing Whelehan as President of the High Court in spite of the Smith scandal:
In a damning political obituary, the Irish Times described Reynolds as a “political bully behind a smiling face who showed a cynical indifference to those principles of public office which did not suit his purposes and whose actions, once in power, belied so much of the high principle he enunciated in his campaign to get there”. Public life, the paper concluded, “will not be greatly the poorer for his departure from office”.
History may be a little kinder, however. It is an irony that the very qualities which got Reynolds into such trouble in the domestic arena also helped him to bring about the IRA ceasefire — his willingness to take risks, to back his own hunches and to cut a deal using the tough negotiating skills of a marketplace fixer.
He was, as he once said, a businessman and a risk taker.
Reynolds influential deputy in north south affairs Martin Mansergh continued to shape his party’s response to the unfolding peace process continuing under his successor Bertie Ahern.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty