Thursday, August 28, 2014

Albert Reynolds RIP

On Monday, Martin McGuinness, myself, Rita O'Hare, Pat Doherty and Lucilita Breatnach represented Sinn Féin at the funeral of former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds in Dublin. All of us, along with others who couldn't attend, had worked with Albert on the peace process. The State ceremony was a fitting send off for a man who was crucial to the development of the peace process.
There was poignancy in the fact that his funeral took place just days before the 20th Anniversary of the historic and groundbreaking IRA cessation of 1994.
That decision by the IRA leadership resulted in enormous changes and had profound effects on politics in Ireland and on the relationship between Ireland and Britain.
Much of the work to bring about that opportunity was carried out away from the public eye and is often now forgotten.
People rightly remember the great political highs of the past two decades, be it the achievement of the Good Friday Agreement, the St. Andrews and Hillsborough Agreement, the decision of Ian Paisley to share power or the decision by the IRA to leave the stage.
But none of these or the other fundamental, political, social and constitutional changes during the peace process would have been possible without the difficult and risk-laden work which was undertaken by Albert Reynolds, Fathers Alec Reid and Des Wilson, John Hume, the Sinn Féin leadership and others in the years before the 1994 cessation including brave citizens from civic unionism, Protestant churches and the community sector.
The Ireland of the early 1990s was very different from now. Armed conflict was part of everyday life. Political censorship and exclusion was the norm. Successive Irish governments worked with British governments in pursuing an entirely negative agenda which merely fed the cycle of discrimination, resistance and conflict.
When Albert became Taoiseach he was briefed by the former Taoiseach Charlie Haughey on discussions that had opened up between Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil. Martin Mansergh, senior political adviser was to be an important bridge and Fr Alex Reid was to be the main conduit to Mr Reynolds. Fr Reid persuaded the new Taoiseach of the possibilities which were being created at that time.
So, Albert Reynolds brought a different approach. He was persuaded of the potential which existed in my own dialogue with John Hume and he was moved to offer support to this at a time when others deliberately sought to undermine it.
Alongside this he struck up a dialogue of his own with the then British Prime Minister John Major and despite significant political opposition both inside and outside the British Parliament, the Downing Street Declaration was secured. This declaration, of course was not sufficient and work had to continue beyond that. But at least Sinn Féin was now dealing directly with the Taoiseach and he came to realise that more was needed.
I regard my relationship with Albert Reynolds to be a very good one. He was very open. He and his wife Kathleen welcomed me and others into their home. They were welcoming, down to earth and straight forward. Albert was also very direct. He was a doer. He wasn’t satisfied with dialogue without aim, objective or concrete outcomes. Of course there were profound differences between us but I always felt that in Albert Reynolds we were dealing with someone who was serious about the task of building the peace process and who represented a new departure from the Irish Government failures which had marked previous decades. This in itself was important.
He was also prepared to listen. He came to the table with a determination to succeed and also with an ability to take risks.
He also knew the North much better than he was given credit for. Some of this goes back to the showband days and he had a very human contact with people in the business community and right across the Six Counties.
It is a testament to Albert's ability to get things done that although he was one of the shortest serving Taoisigh, he achieved so much in so short a space of time. In my opinion a lot of this was possible because he was an outsider. He wasn't part of the Fianna Fáil establishment or the Irish establishment at that time. In fact many of them looked down their noses at him. The establishment at that time was very partitionist. Some of the policy makers remain so to this day. But it took someone from outside that culture to turn the system around in the early days of his term as Taoiseach.
I suppose it is part of the nature of politics that Albert Reynolds was removed from office well before the election of Tony Blair in 1997 and the creation of the sort of inclusive, all-party negotiations which he recognised were necessary but which the Major government failed to deliver in the period after the 1994 cessation.
Given the time he had invested in helping to develop the peace process there is little doubt that Albert would have brought his own dynamic to those talks and helped put his own stamp on what would ultimately emerge as the Good Friday Agreement.
After his retirement from public life Albert Reynolds remained a firm supporter of the peace process. If there was a role that he was asked to play it was done without fuss or without question. I was in contact with him many times and he was a particular assistance in advising in how we deal with the Irish Government of the day. He also developed a very warm personal relationship with Martin McGuinness.
Under Fr Reid's guidance Albert also opened up dialogue with loyalist paramilitaries and their representatives.
On occasions over the past 20 years I have heard numerous people described as being architects of the Irish Peace Process. I have to say on many of these occasions I raise my eyes in surprise. Such a description however sits well with the contribution made by Albert Reynolds.
Albert stepped forward to make peace when it was a risky thing to do. When it was not popular with either the political or the media establishments. He did the right thing. He acted on the North when positive action was needed. As the political process faces into more difficulties, An Taoiseach Enda Kenny would do well if he emulated the actions of Albert Reynolds.
At this sad time I wish to extend my condolences to his wife Kathleen, to their children and to the wider Reynolds family.
Kathleen was hugely supportive of Albert. At times Fr Alec must have driven her to distraction but she was and remains a very sound and solid woman.


No comments: