Saturday 17 March 2018

The risk-taker who brought business values to politics

Reynolds presided over two botched coalitions - but was a key mover in peace process, says John Downing

AN HOUR after he was elected Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds had sacked more than half the cabinet he inherited.

Many of the eight Fianna Fail Ministers he fired were household names linked to big political dynasties, including Gerard Collins, Ray Burke and Mary O'Rourke - but it took Albert Reynolds just 15 minutes to end all their terms in office. Days later, Albert, as he was universally known, maintained the shock momentum by retaining just three out of 12 junior ministers.

He had a curt reply for the few who inquired about their sacking. "Nothing personal - you just backed the wrong horse!" As always, he was applying business values to politics, a practice which brings dangers along with benefits.

Albert Reynolds was approaching his 60th birthday, when he was elected Taoiseach on February 11, 1992. He guessed that he had six years ahead of him in office to show results: on developing the economy and making peace in the North.

He would serve less than half that, presiding over two very acrimonious and botched coalition governments involving Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats and later with Labour. But he is also rightly acclaimed as a key mover in building the Northern Ireland peace process while his work aided economic recovery.

He was born in Roosky, Co Roscommon, in November 1932, and educated at Summerhill secondary school in Sligo. He worked as a CIE clerk while setting up a hugely successful dance hall business and later branching into other areas, many of which were also successful, becoming very wealthy over the years. A lifetime of abstaining from alcohol helped sharpen his business and political focus.

An earlier interest in Fianna Fail politics was rekindled in 1970 when he attended the Haughey Arms Trial each day while on business in Dublin. He took a Longford County Council seat in 1974 and a Dail seat for Longford-Westmeath in the Fianna Fail June 1977 landslide.

Reynolds backed Charlie Haughey's successful efforts to force Jack Lynch out of office in December 1979 and became Minister for Posts & Telegraphs and Transport & Power, responsible for a total of 52,000 people all across the public service. Through years of Fianna Fail turmoil, he supported Haughey and was Minister for Industry & Commerce 1987/88 and Finance Minister 1988/91. But he later became disenchanted with Haughey and detested his decision to concede two cabinet seats in a coalition deal with the breakaway Progressive Democrats in June 1989. Haughey very publicly over-ruled Reynolds's role during FF-PD negotiations.

Reynolds successfully cultivated backbenchers losing faith in Haughey, who in turn denigrated his rivals as the 'country & western set'. Briefly banished from cabinet after an unsuccessful heave in November 1991, Haughey was forced to quit in February 1992 and Reynolds became Fianna Fail leader and Taoiseach.

On his first day in office he astonished everyone by declaring his ambition to work for peace in Northern Ireland. But he was telling the truth.

But storm clouds were gathering over the FF-PD coalition and things came to a head over the Beef Tribunal, set up partly due to questionable decisions Reynolds had made as Industry Minister. Reynolds and PD leader Des O'Malley gave contradictory and mutually destructive evidence at the Tribunal hearings and the Government quickly broke up.

The ensuing general election in November 1992 was a miserable affair and Reynolds's Fianna Fail lost nine Dail seats. But his fortunes improved the following month at an EU leaders' summit in Edinburgh, which allowed him claim billions in Brussels grant aid. The somewhat exaggerated claim helped him forge a new coalition with a resurgent Labour Party - each side blithely overcoming recent bitter attacks on Reynolds by Labour leader, Dick Spring.

The real price for Reynolds, however, was having to concede six cabinet seats to Dick Spring's Labour. He had plunged into an ill-judged election because he resented having to give the PDs just two ministries.

Early clashes between Reynolds and Labour were disguised by extraordinary developments on Northern Ireland. In fact, Albert Reynolds was on the cusp of a stellar breakthrough on the North for which he had risked a lot. From the day he first took office in February 1992, he had worked on IRA links through Belfast-based priests and on loyalist links via protestant clergymen.

A good personal relationship with British Prime Minister, John Major had helped deliver the 'Downing Street Declaration' in December 1993. Britain stated that the majority in the North would henceforth solely decide their future without London interference.

The IRA announced a ceasefire in August 1994 starting a snail's-paced process which would take more than another decade to complete.

Albert Reynolds as Taoiseach had, however, helped lay the cornerstone of an irreversible process to end a generation of horror which had produced over 3,600 murders.

It was a singular achievement which can never be taken from him.

But the break with Labour came quickly despite success on the North. Spring was enraged by Reynolds over-stating his case and saying he was 'vindicated' by the Beef Tribunal report in late July 1994.

The simmering row came to a head in a tangled mess of events in November 1994, concerning the botched handling of extradition proceedings against two child-abuser priests and Reynolds's attempts to appoint the then Attorney General, Harry Whelehan, as High Court president.

Albert Reynolds was suddenly forced to quit as Taoiseach and Fianna Fail leader - to the pleasure of those within Fianna Fail he had so abruptly ousted.

In summary, he failed to make the cultural transition which would allow him see Fianna Fail as a power-sharing party in coalition government.

He had also failed to address the deep divide within FF. Both these lessons were learnt and applied by his protege and successor, Bertie Ahern.

As he exited the Dail chamber after his resignation speech on November, 17, 1994, Albert Reynolds tarried a moment beneath the packed press gallery.

'It's amazing. You cross the big hurdles, and when you get to the small ones you get tripped," he remarked ruefully.

There was a bitter footnote to the end of Albert Reynolds's career. In September 1997, many tipped him to be Fianna Fail's candidate for President of Ireland but the parliamentary party chose an outsider, Mary McAleese. It was widely felt his successor Bertie Ahern had misled him. "It was the only election I ever lost," he told this writer in 2004.

In March 2012, the Mahon Tribunal report criticised him for soliciting political donations from developer Owen O'Callaghan, and also failing to act upon his knowledge of a £50,000 donation from developer Tom Gilmartin to Fianna Fail Minister Padraig Flynn.

Albert Reynolds stayed on for a last Dail term and quit politics ahead of the 2002 general election.

Irish Independent

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