Thursday, August 21, 2014

Albert Reynolds RIP

Albert Reynolds, RIP

Albert Reynolds was my Minister from November 1988 to November 1991. He was the Minister for Finance and I worked in that Department (Ministry).

I didn't have any direct contact with him in the early days, or even during the negotiations for the establishment of the EBRD from late 1989 to mid 1990, which body of work was on my desk. The negotiations were led by Michael Somers and the then Taoiseach, Charlie Haughey, took a hands on interest in them as they had been initiated by his good friend French President Mitterand and Ireland held the EU Presidency in the first half of 1990.

Albert's first real involvement with EBRD was the signing of the Articles of Agreement in May 1990 at the Elysée Palace in Paris. He actually signed the articles twice. No, not in a gesture of extravagance which would not have been his form, but firstly as the Bank's Governor for Ireland and secondly on behalf of the EU Presidency.

His next involvement with the EBRD was at the inauguration of the Bank in London in April 1991. By then we had, of course, relinquished the EU Presidency and he was attending solely in his capacity of Governor for Ireland.

The Chairman and CEO of the Bank was President Mitterand's former adviser Jacques Attali and, as a man of high culture, he had arranged a working lunch for Governors where they would be entertained by the renowned cellist Rostropovich. As I have explained elsewhere, Attali had invited Mary Robinson, the newly elected President of Ireland, to the lunch in place of the lowlier Finance Minister and Governor for Ireland. I felt obliged to get this protocol gaff reversed and managed it by citing the likelihood of an Irish constitutional crisis if Attali persisted in his mistaken campaign to notch up as many Heads of State as possible at every function he organised. This was a working lunch for Governors and the presence of a constitutional Head of State with no executive functions related to the Bank was completely inappropriate.

I don't know if Albert appreciated Rostropovich more than Mary Robinson would have but that was not my problem.

I don't think he was in any way impressed by people's nominal status. I introduced him to Viktor Gerashchenko, then head of the Soviet Central Bank, and the lead Soviet negotiator at the talks. I thought he might like to have said hello to a Soviet dinosaur as the USSR was coming apart. He hadn't the slightest interest.

As it happened, after the first day, Albert got fed up with the whole thing and I got a call in the middle of the night to say he wanted to go straight back to Dublin. This was arranged for first thing the following morning.

Now Albert's speech was scheduled for that morning and as I was now Head of Delegation I was faced with either cancelling it or making it myself. As I had written the speech I was loath to see it vanish so I opted to give it myself. The Norwegian Minister, whose speech was scheduled for the afternoon, was also anxious to be gone. He was looking for a morning speaker to swap with and, as I was going to be around anyway, I swapped slots with the Norwegians. That gave me plenty of time to make a few amendments to the speech to insert a few, not too obvious, digs at Attali who had been getting on my wick from a good while back.

I did inform the secretariat of both the swap and change of personnel but the latter never got as far as the captioners in the video room. So the video of me went out captioned as Albert Reynolds, Governor for Ireland. It is now presumably reposing in some archive and may well confuse historians in times to come.

Finally, Albert is accused of being a "one page man" as thought he couldn't read more than a single page at a session. It was very clearly explained in this morning's excellent Today with Seán O'Rourke that this originally stemmed from Albert, the businessman, insisting on any proposal put to him not going over one page. If he liked it he would then follow it up. In a ministerial/civil service context the "one page" submission also served a purpose. It meant that the person writing it had to have a very clear idea what precisely they were proposing that the minister do and it also gave him a very focused action brief.

Some more EBRD reminisences

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