Whirlwind of energy who rose from clerk to Taoiseach
Tycoon worked behind the scenes to set up unlikely deal in North
Published 22/08/2014 | 02:30
TALL and angular, dressed in a smart blue suit, incessantly smoking a Rothmans cigarette, Albert Reynolds personified what passed for sophistication in Longford in the mid-1970s.
As befitting a rural tycoon with political ambitions, he drove a sleek blue Daimler car with a fake wooden dashboard. When I questioned the wisdom of such luxury in the drab year of 1975 he answered, without hesitation. "I can park it outside the Cathedral and be up the town doing business - and if I miss a funeral they'll see the car and say 'Albert was here.'"
Albert, as he was universally known, had made his money out of the ballroom business started by his brother Jim. He was the jovial one, who, even though he didn't drink, would stay up half the night talking and listening to stories.
He bought his house, Mount Carmel, on the Dublin Road, from the proceeds of Kenny Ball's hit Midnight in Moscow. With a stroke of good fortune he had booked the performer for a tour of Ireland months before, the hit then came along and he filled halls the length and breath of Ireland.
By the time he bought the Longford News from Dessie Hynes, another local entrepreneur, he was on course to become outright owner of C&D pet foods. The company been started by Matty Lyons but Albert had turned it around by his personal contact with Lord Sainsbury, who gave him the concession for pet food in his many stores in England.
He was a whirlwind of energy. Apart from his business interests - which included a meat plant in Dublin, The Showboat, a pub in Malahide, and a finance company - he had become close to Charles J Haughey, turning up each day at the Arms Trial in Dublin to show his support for the future leader.
Along with Ray McSharry, Charlie McCreevy and Noel Fox he was the 'new breed' of Fianna Fáil coming behind the likes of Charlie's older allies like Brian Lenihan Snr.
But owning a local newspaper wasn't without its pitfalls. After pub closing time a procession of supplicants, made brazen by alcohol, would call to the house asking that court cases be kept out of the following week's edition. He didn't comply, but it was losing him support. "What am I going to do?" he asked. Myself and the editor Derek Cobbe told him to say it was a NUJ (National Union of Journalists) rule that all court cases had to be covered. "Brilliant," he said, even though it wasn't true. The matter was never raised again.
As a member of Longford County Council he was often called a "blow in" because he came from a little triangle of land near Roosky which could have been in Longford or Roscommon, which was sized upon by opponents to try to declare him an outsider.
But Albert Reynolds was working behind the scenes and - in an unprecedented move in the run up to the 1977 election - he unseated the incumbent TD, Frank Carter at the Fianna Fail selection convention and was elected a TD for the constituency of Longford/Westmeath.
While Albert was gallivanting around the country in politics or in business, home was always maintained by his wife Kathleen, who seemed to bring a stillness and certainty to the chaotic events going on around her husband.
They were fond of travelling to exotic destinations and always took a week in Galway for the races. Albert also went to Cheltenham, and even when he became a minister he stayed with the same landlady in the towns where he had stayed when he was a CIE clerk.
With his rise through the ranks as Minister for Posts & Telegraphs, Industry & Commerce and eventually the Department of Finance by the early 1990s, Albert left his Longford roots, moving to a double apartment in Anglesea Road in Dublin and later to a big red brick mansion on Ailesbury Road and finally to a suite in the Four Seasons.
When he finally became Taoiseach I, like many others, was astonished to discover his involvement and commitment to the peace process. But over dinners in the Four Seasons he explained that he had made invaluable contacts in the North, on both sides of the divide, through the music business and it had given him a unique way into the labyrinth of politics and paramilitaries through which he was able to work, without alerting the political establishment.
He loved the excitement of clandestine meetings in the Berkeley Court or in obscure parts of the North. It was part of a deep-felt commitment, but also the wheeling and dealing that brought out the gambler in him.
When he turned up at the funeral of former IRA leader Joe Cahill his RUC driver would't take him up the Falls Road to the church. He rummaged through his pockets for taxi fare but had no money, so he had to borrow £20 from one of his police escort to get to the funeral.
In political terms he was reckless, sacking a whole raft of ministers when he became Taoiseach, which led to the nickname 'the Longford Slasher' which left him politically exposed, bringing down a government with Dessie O'Malley over the findings of the Beef Tribunal and using phrases like "a temporary little arrangement' to describe coalition with the PD's and "that's women for you" in a rejoiner to a female politician.
In his latter years its was sad to see the decline of such a once vibrant man. He still wanted to stay up late talking about his time in Ghadaffi's tent, his late night phone calls to Bill Clinton and his relationship with European leaders, but particularly with then-Prime Minister John Major who he cajoled into joining him in the peace process.
To me he will always remain a man without boundaries, who could talk to a corner boy in Longford or walk up to one of the great leaders of the free world and say 'Howya Helmut' to the German chancellor Kohl.
He lasted less than three years as Taoiseach, but he insisted to me in many conversations that he had no regrets, it was what you did not how long you did it that was important. His party piece was the Jim Reeves song best known for the line 'put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone' but the title of which is 'He'll Have to Go' - and so he has, and it can be said with some certainty that he did the state some service.
In his own words
"To get things done, Vote Reynolds 1."
- On the campaign trail in 1977
"Who's afraid of peace?"
- On taking risks in the peace process sometime after becoming Taoiseach in 1992
"A temporary little arrangement."
- On coalition with the Progressive Democrats in 1992
"That's women for you."
- On a heckle from Fine Gael's Nora Owen in 1993
"How would I know? It's a secret."
- On the Third Secret of Fatima after he was asked by an English journalist to explain it at a French airport where 113 Aer Lingus passengers were held hostage in May 1981 by a disturbed former monk demanding the Vatican tell all
"Maybe in hindsight it might have been a little bit overdone. But I'm like that - I take risks. And at all events, I thought all of those I sacked were against me anyway."
- On sacking eight Cabinet minister and nine junior ministers after being appointed Taoiseach in February 1992
"I had my mind made up about Ray Burke."
- On being right to fire the Fianna Fail minister in February 1992.
"It was widely discussed. But no - not necessarily by the dogs in the street. I have every respect for the dogs in the street, who are my best customers."
- On the state of canine political knowledge as a former dog food manufacturer
"It's time you fixed it. And, if you want to stop a strike happening, when you know the Public Works fellows are coming, break the pane of glass again before they get here. They'll never know the difference."
- On a way to speed up repair of a broken window at Sheriff Street postal sorting office in December 1979
"It's amazing. You cross the big hurdles, and when you get to the small one you get tripped."
- On his resignation as Taoiseach in December 1994