Albert Reynolds key player in peace process: John Hume and Gerry Adams may have started, but he helped keep it alive
John Hume and Gerry Adams may have started the process, but Albert Reynolds helped keep it alive at a time when talking to the IRA was politically toxic, writes David McKittrick.
Published 22/08/2014 | 09:10
Although Albert Reynolds was Taoiseach for less than three years, many consider he played a pivotal role in the peace process, particularly by encouraging the IRA to go on ceasefire.
He is thus revered, especially in Dublin, as a key architect of a process which, in its early stages, was so controversial as to be politically almost radioactive.
In essence, Reynolds bought into 'Hume-Adams', the much-denounced channel of contact which had been set up by the leaders of the SDLP and Sinn Fein. He took things to a new level by authorising Irish Government representatives to engage with the republican movement at a time when the IRA was still taking lives.
In the 1990s most of the political world stuck to the traditional practice of shunning those involved in committing or condoning violence. But Reynolds, Hume and a few others decided it was worth putting to the test Sinn Fein's hints that peace was possible.
When he took office in February 1992 Reynolds – always a risk-taker – was instantly enthusiastic when he was briefed about the still secret peace process and set out to persuade John Major (far right) to join him in exploring it.
Reynolds had far more credibility in London than his predecessor Charles Haughey, who was widely distrusted. Reynolds, by contrast, carried only minimal ideological baggage, putting pragmatism first.
He invited Major to take part in quite a perilous high-wire act, since the idea of doing business with republicans, even at arm's-length, was anathema to many Conservatives and to the unionist MPs that Major might need to prop up his slim Commons majority.
Faced with these difficulties, Major was, unsurprisingly, more cautious. But the two had a good relationship, having done business as Cabinet ministers. Major later said he liked "dear old wheeler-dealer Albert" a lot, adding: "I thought we could move things forward together."
The two premiers were in the habit of writing to each other and speaking frequently on the telephone, often calling each other at home.
But the rollercoaster ride of the peace process put great strain on them. The Reynolds-Major relationship, and the entire peace process, came under severe strain in late 1993 when an IRA attack on Belfast's Shankill Road killed the bomber and nine Protestant civilians.
Reynolds recollected: "I was in complete despair. I was so appalled at what had happened that I honestly thought the whole thing would probably blow sky-high."
Yet, although this was a particularly low point, things rapidly got even worse when Gerry Adams carried the coffin of the bomber.
Reynolds described a phone call from Major who, he remembered, could hardly contain himself: "He said: 'What's this about? How do you expect me to continue with any process when I take up the papers this morning and in every paper on the front page is Gerry Adams carrying a coffin?'
"I said: 'Look, John, you have to understand that if the guy didn't carry the coffin, he wouldn't be able to maintain his credibility with that organisation and bring people with him.'"
At one point Reynolds and Major felt let down by each other and, in an attempt to clear the air, held a summit, which included an hour-long private meeting without officials. Major later called this "the frankest and fiercest exchanges I had with any fellow-leader in my six-and-a-half years as Prime Minister".
After the meeting, when a Dublin aide asked Reynolds how it had gone, the Taoiseach replied: "It went all right – he chewed the b******* off me, but I took a few lumps out of him." A British official described the encounter as "bloodletting".
The summit continued, but tensions remained so high and Reynolds argued so remorselessly that Major snapped a pencil in two. As Major recalled it: "I was pretty frustrated and I clenched my fist and banged the table. The pencil broke in my hand and scurried right across the table.
"I think everybody thought it was a piece of ill-temper. It wasn't, it was sheer frustration. It may have been a good thing – it may have ruined the pencil, but I think it concentrated minds."
Yesterday he added: "The joy of the relationship with Albert was that, in a fashion I can't quite explain, we were able to have the fiercest of rows without leaving scars."
The broken pencil incident was certainly not the last Anglo-Irish dispute, but the peace process wound tortuously on. As it continued Reynolds sought to broaden his range of contacts within the northern Protestant community, keeping in touch with Archbishop Robin Eames and with the Rev Roy Magee (left), the late Presbyterian minister who had lines to loyalist paramilitaries.
Reynolds recalled: "Roy Magee used to come and see me in my own office. The two of us talked at length from time to time, with nobody present, no record kept.
"So there was a matter of trust between the two of us to build up a good relationship and to make others feel that their voices were being listened to in Dublin, as well.
"He was very straight-talking, open, very determined. He appreciated that there was a genuine effort being made by the Irish Government to recognise the fears of the loyalist community."
The clergyman explained: "I saw it as my duty to speak to him and to relay to him the fears of the loyalist paramilitaries." Magee helped broker the loyalist ceasefire which came several months after the IRA cessation: when he died in 2009, Reynolds attended his funeral.
The IRA ceasefire was so long in coming that Reynolds and everyone else became increasingly exasperated, and he warned it if it did not hurry he was "going to pull down the shutters on the whole project". The ceasefire declaration eventually reached Reynolds as he addressed a party meeting in Dublin.
One of his ministers, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, recalled the moment: "Everybody jumped to their feet, everybody clapped and screamed and roared, shouted, whistled and everything.
"I mean, it was like a crucial goal in a nail-biting game and there were tears in people's eyes.
"People were hugging each other, couldn't wait to get to him. He was in a melee, just surrounded by people.
"All of us in that room knew that we had, as a party, grown out of civil war and all that that entailed.
"You knew that the founder of our party, Eamon de Valera, had played such a crucial role in the Irish Civil War himself, had been involved with guns and with war over a period of time, and then had decided that he was putting them to bed and was going to go down the democratic process. All of those kinds of emotions were there."
The irony is that, within months, Reynolds was out of office, propelled from power by issues unrelated to the peace process. Yet, after less than three years as Taoiseach, he will be remembered for making an important impact on that process.