I saw Albert and his wife Kathleen take to the floor years ago at a Fianna Fáil function — they could have won prizes for ballroom dancing. He moved instinctively with the music. So it was with Reynolds the politician. He was a politician, possessed of a grace and fleetingness in form that belied his critics. He was deeply rooted and utterly determined.
His history as a successful entrepreneur is well recited. But what is now underestimated is how rare success was for indigenous Irish business in the 1960s and 70s. He had form in making something out of virtually nothing, and seeing opportunity where others could not, long before he entered politics. He was unusual too, in that he was a self-made man twice over, first in business and then in politics.
Elected to the Dáil for Longford-Westmeath in 1977, as Fianna Fáil was entering its third generation, he had none of the family antecedents that increasingly counted as a ticket to the winner’s enclosure in that party.
From the beginning, he was a player. As a backbench TD, he was one of those surrounding Charles Haughey who engineered his victory over George Colley. Rewarded by being made minister for posts and telegraphs, he modernised telecommunications in Ireland and laid an important foundation stone for future economic recovery. Minister for transport in the short-lived Haughey government of 1982 and minister for industry and commerce on Haughey’s return to power in 1987, Reynolds replaced Ray MacSharry as minister for finance on his appointment as European commissioner in 1988. He held that post until he broke with Haughey, and resigned from government in 1991; it spelled the beginning of the end of the Haughey era. Reynolds succeeded Haughey, and swept the boards in the largest scale ministerial reshuffle ever in Irish politics.
As a minister, his relationship with Haughey was strikingly different from the rest of cabinet, with the exception of MacSharry. The self-made man was not beholden to the leader. Haughey’s reversal in the 1989 election he unnecessarily called was the beginning of the end of their relationship.
With Bertie Ahern, Reynolds was asked to negotiate a coalition with the Progressive Democrats. Having put them out in the open, Haughey went over their heads and dealt with Des O’Malley himself. That fractured his relationship with Reynolds, and it never recovered. It also put Reynolds on a collision course with O’Malley, ending in Reynolds, when taoiseach, accusing O’Malley of being “dishonest” in his evidence to the Beef Tribunal. So ended, in turmoil, the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrat coalition, briefly led by Reynolds as taoiseach.
The ensuing general election in 1992 was a major setback for Fianna Fáil, which lost nine seats and seemed to be headed for opposition. John Bruton, however, stepped into the breach, and bungled Fine Gael’s approach to a triumphant Labour Party under Dick Spring. Always a man to spy opportunity when others didn’t, Reynolds moved in. He pulled victory from the jaws of defeat by firstly negotiating a stunningly successful deal at the EU Summit in Edinburgh, securing nearly €8bn in aid. He also persuaded Spring that there was a real chance of a ceasefire in the North.
The afterlife of the Beef Tribunal was to return and rupture his relationship with Spring, though not immediately that government. Contrary to the expectation in Labour, that they would have sight of the Tribunal’s final report before publication, Reynolds moved peremptorily and brandished it in public as proof of his innocence.
A strong man with a sense of grievance, Reynolds allowed personal considerations to cloud political judgement. The subsequent Brendan Smyth affair did not pivot politically on the substance of how that matter had been mishandled in the Attorney General’s office. Rather, it hinged on the promise Reynolds had made of the post of president of the High Court to his attorney general, Harry Whelehan, which he would not resile from.
The Smyth scandal, in the context of already damaged relations, brought down the Fianna Fáil- Labour government in December 1994, and though Reynolds remained in the Dáil until 2002, the debacle effectively ended his political career. His subsequent attempt to secure the Fianna Fáil nomination for president was unsuccessful. Some party TDs were concerned that the cloud had not cleared from past controversy. Others with scores to settle were lying in wait.
The outline of these facts, the tumult that was seldom far from Reynolds politically, belie enormous achievement. The North is one, but the economic recovery that took root in the 1990s was in no small measure due to his drive and acumen. In the end it was, as Reynolds admitted, “the little things” that tripped him up. In the words of the poet John Dryden, in the poem ‘Absalom and Achitophel’ Reynolds was: A daring pilot in extremity, Pleased with the danger, when the waves went high, He sought the storms; but, for the calm unfit.
He was a man of enormous achievement and ambition, but surprisingly little of what passes conventionally for political guile. This was to his credit, the cause of his achievement and his ultimate undoing.