Albert Reynolds was a political entrepreneur

ALBERT REYNOLDS was a unique taoiseach in that he was also a highly successful businessman. Unlike any of the other taoisigh who held the office since the foundation of the State, he came into politics on the back of a career as an entrepreneur.

That background informed his time at the top. The can-do attitude of successful business people was a key ingredient in his role in pushing along the peace process, culminating in the IRA ceasefire of 1994.

But his instincts as a businessman may well have also contributed to his shortened tenure as taoiseach. Within months of the ceasefire, he was forced from office by his coalition partner Labour, largely because of his inability to practice the art of politics in all its elements of fudge, compromise and, as best exemplified by his successor Bertie Ahern, suppression of ego.

“It’s the little things that trip you up,” he said on the occasion of his resignation as taoiseach, delivering a fitting epitaph to his career as the country’s leader.

Reynolds was born on November 3, 1932, in Roosky, Co Roscommon, and was educated in Sligo. After school, he acquired a job as a clerk with CIÉ but quickly tired of the routine and left to get involved in the dancehall business.

Reynolds proved himself to be a dancehall impresario of considerable ability. He made a packet and invested wisely, most notably in a pet food company in Longford that became the family flagship enterprise.

One possible advantage he may have had over competitors in the dancehall game was his status as a teetotal. A capacity to listen late into the night as others wade deeper into the swamp of verbiage must have been a good grounding for politics.

By the mid-’70s, Reynolds was looking towards politics to fulfil his drive for success. He was first elected to the Dáil in 1977, in a transformative election that saw the Jack Lynch-led Fianna Fáil achieve a majority of 20 seats. The election was also notable for being the first to introduce US-style razzmatazz and colour, and kicked off the second-coming of Charlie Haughey as a major national figure.

Reynolds quickly hitched his wagon to Haughey’s star, and within two years, he was the leading member of a so-called ‘gang of five’ TDs who moved against Lynch’s leadership.

Lynch saw the writing on the wall and left, to be replaced by Haughey. Reynolds was suitably rewarded with his first cabinet appointment to the portfolio of Posts and Telegraphs.

The photographer Derek Spiers captured an image from the day that Reynolds, and his confederate from the West, Ray McSharry were both handed their first cabinet postings. The two men are sitting each side of Haughey’s mother, Sarah, each planting a kiss on the elderly woman’s cheek. It’s an image that sums up the position both men took over the tumultuous years to come, in which their leader faced challenge after challenge, and both men stood four square behind him. Until, eventually, Reynolds decided that his own time had come.

Fianna Fáil were in and out of government in the early-’80s, Reynolds moving to Transport first and then Industry and Energy. Then, in 1983, it was into the cold house of opposition wherein the battle was joined for the soul of the party. You were either for or against Haughey, and Reynolds knew where he stood.

By the time 1987 rolled around, the dissidents had been suppressed or had fled to join the fledgling Progressive Democrats. Haughey returned to government and Reynolds to Industry and Commerce. Within two years, McSharry had gone to Brussels, so Reynolds took over the Finance portfolio, but his time at Industry and Commerce would come to haunt the rest of his career.

It was in that capacity he oversaw the extension of export credit insurance to Larry Goodman’s group, thus underpinning the export of beef to Iraq. Saddam had plenty of use for Irish beef, but first in line were his armies engaged in a long war with neighbouring Iran.

The relationship between Goodman and the Fianna Fáil-led government would eventually form the basis for the beef tribunal, where Reynolds’ shortcomings would be exposed.

Back at Leinster House, Reynolds saw the writing on the wall for his old mentor. Just as he had once mounted the stalking horse on behalf of Haughey, now others were doing so on his behalf. In November 1991, a leadership challenge was laid down against Haughey. Reynolds and his best pal, Pádraig Flynn, parted ways with the chief, and when Haughey won the vote, both left the cabinet table.

It wasn’t long before another member of the country ’n’ western set, Sean Doherty, emerged from the wilderness wielding a knife for Haughey. Doherty resurrected a phone tapping scandal from the early-’80s, when Haughey had been fighting for his political survival. Suddenly, the past had caught up with Haughey.

Fianna Fáil’s coalition partner, the PDs, had had enough. The chief departed with a modicum of grace into what he expected to be a gilded retirement where he would adopt the persona of eminence grise. Little did he expect his subsequent exposure as a crook and kept man, or that he would be beset by inquiries that would pursue him to the lip of the grave.

Reynolds easily beat off the challenge of Bertie Ahern for the leadership in February 1992, and then he presented a hostage to fortune by engaging in a night of the long knives. Eight of Haughey’s cabinet and another seven junior ministers were sacked, and off they went into the thickening long grass.

The beef tribunal put paid to Reynolds brief liaison with the PDs when he and Dessie O’Malley did their best to insult each other with their respective evidence to the inquiry. Reynolds described O’Malley’s evidence as “reckless, irresponsible and dishonest”. Cue the inevitable general election. Fianna Fáil lost nine seats, falling to 68, its worst result since 1927. Labour emerged as the real victors and kingmakers, but when its leader Dick Spring couldn’t do business with Fine Gael’s John Bruton, a new coalition partnership was formed between Fianna Fáil and Labour.

Reynolds proved himself a competent leader on the economy, aided by his finance minister Ahern, and on the North he forged a close and vital friendship with British premier John Major.

He saw the possibilities on the North soon after he assumed the leadership, as he later explained to BBC journalist Brian Rowen.

“I was well aware throughout from the very start that an alternative strategy would have to be put in place that would make it possible for the leadership of Sinn Féin to go to the IRA Army Council to try to convince them that there was an alternative route, a route through the democratic process that could produce results and that there was a vast amount of goodwill and support to be gathered around the world behind this new direction.”

The work came to fruition with the historic Downing Street Declaration in December 1993.

The IRA ceasefire duly arrived nine months later. With the 30-year conflict apparently at an end, and the State emerging into a new dawn of prosperity, it was a high time to be sitting atop the cabinet table.

And then within months, the possibilities had all slipped from his grasp. The substance of the issue between the parties was the appointment of attorney general Harry Whelehan to the High Court, despite his role in a cock-up over the extradition of the paedophile priest, Brendan Smyth. Reynolds felt duty bound to appoint Whelehan, but Dick Spring and his Labour colleagues were totally opposed on the basis of the cock up by the AG’s office.

In the end, Reynolds appointed Whelehan, and the Labour ministers walked out of government. Within days, Whelahan had resigned, and it looked like the coalition could be patched up, but Reynolds would be the one to pay the price.

“We’ve come for a head,” Ruairi Quinn told his Fianna Fáil counterparts when attempts were made at negotiation. Under the circumstances, in a party where Reynolds had been a dividing rather than uniting figure, few were going to go out on a limb for him.

The characters of the respective leaders had a lot to do with the break-up. Dick Spring was a notoriously prickly politician, who, by November 1994, felt he had been slighted in office by Reynolds on more than one occasion. Reynolds was simply pig-headed, and incapable of charming, cajoling or humouring Spring in the manner that politics often demands.

As it was to turn out, one head wasn’t enough for Labour. Following more revelations, they pulled out of government before Reynolds’ successor Ahern could patch things up.

For Reynolds though, that was it. Power was wrestled from his grasp so soon after he had rendered the State so much service. His tenure at the top, while fruitful, was never burdened by any long-term view of how he would like to see Irish society develop. He wasn’t one for the vision thing.

He was a man of practicalities, a position that is vital in business, but somehow lacking in politics. One example of his approach to politics was the tax amnesty of 1993. A number of different accounts from those at or close to the cabinet table at the time recall that Reynolds was the man pushing for an amnesty. The Labour party were opposed to it on the basis that it rewarded tax dodgers. Ahern claimed to hold the same view.

Yet Reynolds saw the amnesty primarily as a means of generating hundreds of millions of pounds (the terms were to pay 15% of undeclared earnings) which could be put to use in social programmes or tax cuts. His view prevailed in the end when Ahern had a volte face and introduced the amnesty.

His position on social issues was equally practicable. He was neither for nor against the so-called liberal agenda that washed across the country in the 1980s. He was as conservative as the electorate and as liberal as voters wanted him to be.

When the X case exploded on his watch, he passed the problem onto the courts. He never gave the impression of having a strict code on abortion, but neither did he do anything to suggest he wanted to bring people with him in any particular direction on it, or any other social issues. If folks wanted it, he was for it, as long as it wouldn’t cause too much trouble.

In a society that was growing increasingly urban, he was often denigrated by those who considered him lacking in the graces of a modern leader. His style and manner of speech were targeted by some who suffered from pitiable bouts of psycho-sophistication.

Yet, Reynolds was quite obviously intelligent, and in tune with middle Ireland. He didn’t exude Haughey’s veneer of class, but 20:20 vision exposes Haughey as deeply insecure and crooked, rather than imbued with leadership qualities.

Neither did Reynolds have the political nous of Ahern, but again the stock of the latter’s political legacy has been greatly devalued in recent years. Reynolds, by contrast, appears to have been largely as he presented himself.

One insightful opinion on his premiership was offered by Fergus Finlay, the former Labour party adviser who worked closely with Spring. Finlay summed up Reynolds in his memoir, Snakes and Ladders.

“In the end, I believe that Albert Reynolds suffered from an inferiority complex. He led us to a great achievement, in the form of an IRA ceasefire, and he presided over the greatest economic recovery in Ireland’s history.

“But it wasn’t enough. His bottom line was respect and he never felt he got enough.

“His endless quest for vindication about the events of that period, and his inability to accept some responsibility for the events that brought down his government, are proof for me that Albert Reynolds needed not just to be right, but to be seen to be right.”

He had one encore but it went pear shaped. His attempt to win the presidential nomination in 1997 was shot down in clinical fashion by Ahern who knew that Reynolds would not win the election, and he saw the party’s chances best served by Mary McAleese.

Later, when his illness began to take hold, he was excused an appearance at the Mahon Tribunal to answer questions about his relationship with the developer Owen O’Callaghan.

His decline was long, lasting the best part of a decade, during which sad word seeped out every now and again about his deterioration. Like thousands of other families, the Reynolds had to endure the painful departure of their loved one’s mind long before his death, and by all accounts the illness was managed with the love, care and support which had been afforded Albert throughout his career.

In terms of his legacy, it’s all relative in Fianna Fáil these days. His family and supporters can comfort themselves with the thought that he’s the only leader of the party since Jack Lynch who came out the other side of his tenure at the top with his record largely untarnished. Haughey and Ahern are now both viewed in light of the inquiries that exposed their failings, and Brian Cowen is widely associated with the mismanagement of the economy. By those standards, Reynolds’ legacy has emerged largely unscathed.

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