Monday 19 February 2018

He began a communications revolution which opened up Ireland to foreign markets

Albert Reynolds came into national politics later in life than any other person who has held the office of Taoiseach. He was 44 when he was first elected to the Dail in 1977. Liam Cosgrave, the outgoing Taoiseach on the day Reynolds first took his seat, had been just 23 when he started out as a TD and Jack Lynch, the Taoiseach-elect, was only 30 when he was initially elected to the Dail.

Prior to running for office, Reynolds had been a successful entrepreneur and his experiences in business as a shrewd negotiator and instinctive risk-taker were central to his political style. He was ambitious and he brought a can-do approach to politics. Reynolds was also a man in a hurry, determined to make up for lost time. He initially closely aligned himself with Charles Haughey.

In 1979, Reynolds was a central figure in persuading backbench Fianna Fail TDs to support Haughey over George Colley, the Minister for Finance and Lynch's favoured successor. On becoming Taoiseach, Haughey rewarded Reynolds's support. Despite having served an apprenticeship of just over two years, Reynolds leap-frogged many party colleagues - who had a lot more time on the Oireachtas clock - into the cabinet.

Reynolds served first as Minister for Posts and Telegraphs and he was a minister who was impatient to drive progress. He stunned colleagues at his very first cabinet meeting when he sought £1.1bn to invest in Ireland's national communications infrastructure. He understood that international investment was being hampered by Ireland's archaic telecommunications network.

When Reynolds became a minister, phones were in such short supply that there was a two-year waiting list. Reynolds's junior minister in Posts and Telegraphs, Mark Killilea, colourfully recalled of this period that: "Bad pigeons were better than the postal service and telecommunications we had." Reynolds did not immediately get his £1.1bn, but his insistence moved telecommunications way up the investment ladder at a time when the economy was in serious recession.

This priority was reflected in the fact that in Reynolds's first year as minister, an unprecedented 62,000 telephones were installed nationally. He also announced a £650m investment to build a digital-based network and a new state agency, Telecom Eireann.

It was the beginning of a communications revolution, which laid significant foundations for economic expansion and foreign direct investment. From the outset, Reynolds was internationalist in his outlook. In his maiden speech to Dail Eireann in November 1977 he urged the IDA to be "more adventurous" in its efforts to persuade international industries to locate in Ireland.

He understood Ireland also had to substantially increase its export base and he spoke about the need for a sea change in attitudes.

He recalled that when he set up his own pet food business people laughed at him and suggested that there was no market for special products "to feed cats and dogs in Ireland". Reynolds explained that his horizons were broader and that his focus was on the existing market in the United Kingdom, then worth £250m.

The need to expand Ireland's export base and to bring outside investment into the country were the dominant themes of Reynolds's two separate spells in the Department of Industry and Commerce. He strongly targeted the Irish-American business community and the vibrant Japanese economy in the 1980s.

According to Padraic White, the then IDA's Managing Director, "he established an immediate rapport with business audiences".

Reynolds's ability to sell Ireland helped to bring about the first wave of multinational software investment in Ireland, which by the early noughties had led to an incredible scenario where Ireland overtook the US as the largest exporter of software in the globe.

Irish Independent

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