News Comment

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Albert reached into his pocket and took out £500 to pay a private eye

From his failure to become President to his devastating libel action in London, Albert Reynolds had always given Jody Corcoran the inside track

Published 31/08/2014 | 02:30

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Albert Reynolds leaving court in London
Four of Albert Reynolds' daughter shelter at his funeral
Albert’s daughter, Miriam, at the former Taoiseach’s funeral at Shanganagh Cemetery, in Dublin.

One day, around 18 years ago, Albert Reynolds called and asked me to attend his office in Leinster House, which in those days I used to do regularly enough anyway.

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At the time, he was a former Taoiseach and Fianna Fail leader who had recently fought a libel action in the Royal Courts of Justice in London.

He was on the telephone when I arrived, literally buying and selling oil to Arabs: "Sell," he said to whoever was on the line and hung up without waiting for a reply.

Then he walked across the room, reached into his trouser pocket and unfurled a wad of notes, peeled away £500 and said: "That's to pay a man."

These were interesting times for a young reporter, wet behind the ears, but who liked to live somewhat on the edge.

I first met Albert two years earlier when, as a freelance, I called and asked him for an interview shortly after he had been ousted from office.

To my amazement, he invited me to his then home at an apartment complex called Hazeldene, which overlooked Merrion Cricket Club, on Anglesea Road, in Ballsbridge.

Nothing much emerged from the interview, but when we got to chatting afterward, almost by the way, he told me Vincent Browne had settled a case against the State arising from the tapping of his telephone.

The story appeared on the front page of the Sunday Independent that weekend.

And so began an interesting relationship between a former Taoiseach and a cub reporter.

Reynolds's intention was clear - he wanted to be President, and after that did not happen, he wanted to topple Bertie Ahern.

And mine was equally clear - I wanted an inside track to exclusives and scoops. And how better to do that than to forge a close relationship with a man who, in the recent words of Fergus Finlay, had been "at the heart of every single event in a bewildering circus of political activity and scandal"?

A litany of great stories were to follow, some published, others not for a variety of reasons, mainly because I couldn't prove them at the time.

For example, months before Vincent Browne broke the story, Reynolds told me about the Fitzwilton payment to Ray Burke, via a subsidiary company Rennicks, which has been denied; years before the Mahon Tribunal, he told me about Bertie Ahern's 'secret' bank account at AIB in Eyre Square, Galway, the existence of which was denied by a source close to Bertie; again, years before Mahon, Albert told me that Ahern had called in a group of friends - 'dig-out' pals - to repay money they had given to him, also denied by a source close to Bertie.

There was some plausibility to the denial at the time: the money was not repaid at that stage - but certainly, I believe, an attempt to do so was made, which is also why I have doubts about aspects of the Mahon Tribunal Report - there was a 'dig-out', I believe, not two but one. How else could Albert Reynolds have known about it?

At the time, Albert had been "shafted" for the Presidency and he was hell bent on retribution.

Throughout his campaign for the Fianna Fail nomination, he and I became particularly close.

Shortly before the vote, Jim McDaid went public to call on Ray MacSharry to seek the nomination, which MacSharry did not want: but Albert immediately sensed a game afoot and told me so.

At his suggestion, I called PJ Mara, and Mara relayed what was effectively a message: "Reynolds will not win," he said. "Take it from me, he will not win."

When I spoke to Reynolds later, he asked me to repeat verbatim what Mara had said. When I did, there was a long silence at the end of the line.

To anybody who feels uneasy at this interface between politics, journalism and business, I say - you don't know the half of it. I also ask - how else do you think journalists find out things?

At his funeral last week, Albert Reynolds's daughter, Miriam, spoke of those who had vilified her father: "Dad was frequently isolated, shunned and vilified," she said.

An interpretation has been put that she was referring to the Sunday Independent's coverage of the peace process: she may have been, but it is my view she also had other things on her mind, not least that infamous libel trial in London, a few weeks after which, I witnessed Albert unfurl the £500.

He went to the Royal Courts of Justice to sue the Sunday Times over an article which had been headlined: 'Goodbye, gombeen man - Why a fib too far proved fatal for the political career of Ireland's peacemaker and Mr Fixit.'

The disputed article, penned by my subsequent colleague and friend, the late Alan Ruddock, appeared in the November 20 1994 issue of the paper's English, Welsh and Scottish editions, but not in the Irish edition.

It said: "In another age, Albert Reynolds could have been the classic gombeen man of Irish lore; the local fixer with a finger in every pie . . . His slow fall last week, his fingernails screeching down the political cliff face, has been welcomed with a whoop of delight by many Irish people who want to see their country dragged out of the past."

It continued: "The full story of his eclipse, however, has sullied Ireland's reputation, damaged its church, destroyed its peacemaker and provided its unionist neighbours with a fistful of new reasons to avoid contamination by the South."

At the heart of the case was the paper's interpretation of the events surrounding the collapse of the Fianna Fail/Labour government led by Albert Reynolds and Dick Spring, then Labour leader.

At her home in Edinburgh, Scotland, Miriam Reynolds read the article with a mixture of shock, anger and upset.

A feature of the trial was the highly anticipated evidence of Fergus Finlay, who was Dick Spring's adviser in that Government.

Finlay turned up in the Royal Courts of Justice all set to give evidence, but as it turned out, the Sunday Times made a decision not to call him.

His non-appearance in the witness box led to all kinds of wild speculation, but the truth is, Finlay was more than willing to say his piece. That evening, I got another call from Albert who gave me an address in London where he and Kathleen were staying for the duration of the trial. A taxi ride later and I was sitting in their living-room again.

Albert showed me Finlay's intended statement, and I had another exclusive - the lead story that weekend: 'Revealed: what Finlay would have said', except that wasn't the full story. I had to leave out what Finlay would have really said.

The full account, which can now be told, is that Fergus Finlay would have described the former Taoiseach as "irredeemably corrupt".

I had to leave out this damning assessment because, at the time, our legal advice was that Albert could have sued us for publishing it - even though he had provided me with Finlay's statement in the first place.

He had form in this regard: in all, it is estimated that Albert Reynolds had taken the guts of €200,000 from media organisations in various libel actions.

That said, for all the misinterpretation of what his eldest daughter said in her prayer of the faithful, Albert never sued the Sunday Independent.

And for the record, in all of my time on the beat, I had never come across any evidence that he was corrupt, irredeemable or otherwise; but there was plenty of evidence he was a dealer, and an able one at that.

A few weeks after the trial I met with him again, this time in the company of the businessman, Edward Haughey, subsequently Lord Ballyedmond, the wealthiest man in Northern Ireland, who died in a helicopter accident recently.

Eddie Haughey recounted a fantastic tale to us to the effect that the 'establishment' in the UK had attempted to conspire that Reynolds would not win his case against the Sunday Times - and even provided the identity of an alleged conspirator.

This individual, who Eddie Haughey maintained was well connected to the unionist tradition in the North, was regularly in the Royal Courts of Justice throughout the trial.

It all sounded to me peculiarly unlikely.

But there and then, Albert decided to have the alleged conspirator checked out, which is what, in turn, ultimately led to that call 18 years ago to attend his office once more - this time on the promise of a sensational story.

When I arrived, I sat in an armchair and waited for Albert to finish up the business of oil.

When he did, he strolled across, a smile on his face, a file under his arm and explained the £500 would be used by him to pay for a private detective's report.

As it turned out, the detective's findings were incredibly - and predictably - vague. The conspiracy was a mirage.

So why publish all of this now? Call it a second draft of history, a more rounded account of a man, far from gombeen, but an able dealer who more than most brought peace of Ireland. To that end, Albert Reynolds was essential.

Sunday Independent

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