Thursday 27 November 2014

Eamon Delaney: A tribute to Albert Reynolds

Published 21/08/2014 | 09:37

File photo dated 13/10/09 of former Irish Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, who has died, according to state broadcaster RTE. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Thursday August 21, 2014. The 81-year-old became the eighth prime minister of the country in 1992, serving for just under three years. See PA story DEATH Reynolds. Photo credit should read: Paul Faith/PA Wire
Former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds Credit: Paul Faith/PA Wire

Albert Reynolds was born in Roosky, on the Longford and Roscommon border on 4 November 1932.

Educated at Summerhill College, County Sligo, he later worked as a clerk with CIE, the state transport service.

However, it was in the private sector that Reynolds was most successful, famously going into the showband scene, and owning a number of dance halls, after which he accumulated a pet food company, a bacon factory, a fish exporting operation and a hire purchase company, as well as interests in local newspapers and a cinema.

Although his dance hall empire required late nights, Reynolds was a traditional family man (and teetotaller) and had a happy home with his wife Kathleen and their seven children.

Reynolds is also unusual in an Irish context, being a businessman politician, with a network of international contacts, and many regretted that he wasn’t at the helm during the later Celtic Tiger years, and its problematic aftermath. 

Reynolds was 45 when he came into the Dail with the Fianna Fail landslide of 1977, and, like many such ambitious TDs, he was soon plotting against the incumbent Lynch and supporting the leadership aspirations of the outsider Haughey.

Reynolds would have typified the cultural upheaval within FF, clashing with the cautious, patrician Lynch. On becoming Taoiseach, Haughey appointed Reynolds, Minister for Transport in 1980, making his brief one of the largest and most wide-ranging in the government. FF lost power in 1981 but regained it again in 1982, and Reynolds became Minister for Industry and Energy.

That government fell in late 1982 and Reynolds was back on the opposition benches. During the 1982–83 period the FF leader, Charles Haughey, faced three motions of no-confidence, but Reynolds gave him full support and Haughey survived.

In 1987 Fianna Fáil returned to government and Reynolds became one of the most senior positions in the cabinet, as Minister for Industry and Commerce, the post was especially important as the government's top priority was economic recovery, with tough necessary cuts to make the country competitive.

In 1988 he succeeded Ray Mac Sharry as Minister for Finance. After the 1989 election, FF formed a surprise coalition with their enemy, the Progressive Democrats, a partnership that Reynolds controversially described as a ‘temporary little arrangement’.

Such a cavalier attitude would come back to haunt Reynolds when he became Taoiseach himself. This prospect grew stronger as pressure increased on Haughey’s leadership. Reynolds was seen as the strongest contender and the so-called "Country & Western" wing group of FF TDs began to canvass on his behalf.

Reynolds showed the mettle where others wouldn’t and openly opposed Haughey and his big chance finally came when revelations emerged about Haughey knew about the phone-tapping scandal of the early 1980s.

In 1992, Haughey finally retired and Reynolds became Taoiseach and controversially sacked almost all of the Cabinet, introducing fresh talents. The new Government immediately faced a crisis with the X case abortion issue, and Reynolds showed his talents as a mediator and pragmatist by finding a resolution.

These talents were also to prove Reynolds asset in dealing with other social conservative issues and with Northern Ireland. He was unencumbered by ideological baggage or needless vanity. He also showed refreshing economic energy and scored a major coup by securing up to 8 billion in EU Structural Funds from Brussels.

However, Reynolds was stubborn in his own self-belief and bad blood over accusations made during the Beef Tribunal poisoned the atmosphere inside the new FF-PD coalition. It would also poison relations in the subsequent FF-Labour coalition.

Recriminations resulted in a Government collapse, and in the subsequent election, FF did very badly and were forced to form an unexpected coalition with the Labour party. Although the formation was controversial, however, the FF-Labour Government did herald a fresh change, and immediately addressed a long backed-up agenda of liberalising legislation and the then nascent Peace Process in Northern Ireland.

Reynolds was famously successful on the latter, but just at his moment of glory, disaster struck when Reynolds’ insistence on appointing Harry Whelehan as President of the High Court brought down the Government. Labour were adamant at not agreeing to the appointment, but Reynolds persisted, much to the dismay of his FF colleagues.

Reynolds resigned as FF leader and was replaced by Bertie Ahern, and the FF-Labour coalition was replaced by a Rainbow Alliance of FG, Labour and Democratic Left. In subsequent years, Reynolds concentrated on his business interests and on speaking about the Northern peace process.

In 2002, he tried to become FF candidate for President but was widely perceived to have been shafted by the party leadership. Harbouring no bitterness, he retreated to a private life and spent the last of his days, living in the Four Seasons hotel in Ballsbridge, Dublin.

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