Sunday 15 September 2019

Lucky Albert, left with his happy memories

Anyone can be forgetful, but Liam Collins remembers a good night with the former Taoiseach

'You pick the wine -- I like a French one, one with a double name, I have a bottle of it upstairs, but I can't remember what it's called," said Albert Reynolds as we were sitting in the dining room of the Four Seasons in Dublin 4 recently.

I was feeling intimidated looking at the lengthy wine list while the sommelier hovered nearby. Then there were the prices, which weren't cheap and I wasn't getting any easy option like the 'House Red' -- you don't get that sort of thing in a classy joint in Ballsbridge.

"God they're fierce expensive," I told the former Taoiseach.

"Don't mind that," he said with a wave of his hand. "I haven't bought you a drink in a long time, just pick something, anything you like," he replied.

It was a long way from drinking Black Tower in the back of the car on the way to his ballroom in Rooskey.

Albert and I go back a long way -- not quite as far as the dancehall days, but far enough to another era when his petfood firm was starting off and he was planning a political career that would take him from the chamber of Longford County Council, where he was once called a "blow in" to the Taoiseach's office in Government Buildings.

In the meantime, he would also move from 'Mount Carmel' on the Dublin Road in Longford to a massive house on Ailesbury Road in Dublin 4. Albert was always on the move.

But back in those days, when he was driven by the twin ambitions of making money and building a political machine, Albert Reynolds didn't drink wine, or anything else for that matter. He smoked like a trooper, swore like a soldier and stayed up until he was almost always the last man standing.

It was probably a hangover from the dancehall days, when you had to wait around to count the money and pay the band.

What always astonished me is that, even if the company he was in were having "a rake of pints", as it was known in Longford, Albert would still be in the thick of it. So much so that one colleague I know did not realise that Albert Reynolds didn't drink.

But now he's partial to a glass or two of wine. He is also to be the subject of a biography and the writer was looking for my hazy recollection of what was going on in Longford in the Seventies. So that's how we ended up having dinner in the Four Seasons, drinking a very fine bottle of red with a name that ended in Latour. It has to be said that Albert's biographer was also present, so it was a moderate enough evening.

It wasn't something I had ever intended to write about, but last week's revelation that he was now suffering from "a significant cognitive impairment", which precludes him having to give evidence at the Mahon Tribunal, reminded me of the night.

What exactly "cognitive impairment" means I don't know, but his GP and four consultants, two of his own and two employed by the Mahon Tribunal, have concluded unanimously that Albert Reynolds is "medically unfit to give evidence to the tribunal".

At least someone seems to have a bit of sense. Why should more taxpayers' money be wasted going down another tribunal cul de sac. At this stage Alan Mahon should be wrapping up his long-winded tribunal, which has lost the interest and confidence of the public, except for a few anorak's from RTE and a gaggle of old age pensioners with nothing better to do with their lives.

Can any of us say with certainty, or describe in exact detail, what we did or said 15 or 20 years ago? Tribunals appear to believe that everybody has crystal clear recall of their conversations and events of long ago.

But even back then, to remind himself to do things Albert used to write notes on the back and inside of his cigarette boxes.

According to the Mayo Clinic, mild cognitive impairment (MCI) can be divided into two types, one which significantly affects memory and the other which does not. We were able to talk about things and events long into the evening, and, okay, he might not have remembered names as easily as he once did, but he was as entertaining as ever as he ranged over a lifetime in business and politics.

But I'm glad he won't be subjected to the 'Star Chamber' at Dublin Castle which has turned into a long running and expensive charade, the bloated bill for which the taxpayers will one day have to pay.

Albert Reynolds great strength is that he liked most people and he had a wonderful ability to treat everybody as an equal, whether they were a constituent or characters he met at the Galway races, or whether he was talking to Bill Clinton, John Major or Muammar Gaddafi.

And, of course, there is no doubt that he played the pivotal role in the peace process because, as he says himself, he listened rather than dictated, and also because his connections around Ireland were not confined to politics; they were an eclectic bunch from his days in showbusiness and his other business interests.

And, of course, there was the rapport between himself and Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, a kindred spirit in search of a deal.

There may be people who would like to see another powerful political figure from the past hauled before the planning tribunal as a sort of sad blood sport for those with nothing better to do.

Albert Reynolds was a "one sheet man" as he said himself.

It's time the tribunals followed his example, wrote their reports and moved on and earned a living from someone other than the taxpayer.

In my opinion, Albert Reynolds did the state some service and I'm glad he's going to be left in peace.

Oh, all right, we did order a second bottle of wine and I drank most of it and Albert Reynolds paid the bill.

And when I got home I got a telling off for staying out late, so I blamed Albert.

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss