Obituary: Albert Reynolds, politician

Albert Reynolds: Former Irish Taoiseach who played a key role in the Northern Ireland peace process. Picture: PA
Albert Reynolds: Former Irish Taoiseach who played a key role in the Northern Ireland peace process. Picture: PA
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Born: 3 November, 1932, in Roosky, County Roscommon, Ireland. Died: 21 August, 2014, in Dublin, aged 81.

AlBERT Reynolds was Taoiseach, or Prime Minister, of Ireland for almost three years between early 1992 and late 1994, key times during which he helped bring peace to his troubled neighbour, Northern Ireland, and ceasefires by both the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries. Working with his British counterpart John Major, he was also seen as improving Anglo-Irish relations when the two men signed their Downing Street Declaration on 15 December, 1993. The declaration gave impetus to the Northern Ireland peace process, leading first to a ceasefire by the IRA the following year and by the loyalists soon afterwards.

After news of his death emerged early yesterday, “peacemaker” or “dealmaker” were the words most used in tributes from around the world.

The fact that he had long been considered something of political “wheeler-dealer” was said to have held him in good stead in the tricky peace process in the North and how the Republic should handle it. While the IRA and the loyalists were still stalling, he famously asked in a speech: “Who is afraid of peace?” He was one of the few politicians in Ireland to win the trust of both sides in the Ulster conflict – the unionists and the republicans, including the IRA.

Unbeknownst to most British politicians and MPs at the time, Reynolds had helped create a “back channel” to push the peace process forward. He was helped by two middlemen who risked their lives coming and going between the two sides, including heavily armed men, in clandestine meetings.

One was a passionately republican Northern Irish businessman, Brendan Duddy. The other was British MI6 spy Michael Oatley, known at the time to his interlocutors only by his code name “Mountain Climber”, who was usually taken to meetings blindfolded.

The “wheeler-dealer” tag came back to haunt Reynolds when he was linked with a series of scandals, including allegations of a high-level cover-up over cases of paedophile priests in the Catholic church. He was not directly linked with the affair but took a lot of the criticism and anger. After his spell as Taoiseach, he all but disappeared from public life but for the publication of Albert Reynolds: My Autobiography in 2009.

Among the first to tweet tributes after his death were two key Northern Irish figures, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. Adams said Reynolds had acted on the Northern Ireland question “when it mattered”. McGuinness, also from Sinn Fein, the man who used to secretly meet the MI6 man Oatley, expressed sadness over the death and deep sympathy to his widow Kathleen and children before saying: “Albert was a peacemaker.”

A member of the Fianna Fail party, Reynolds was Taoiseach first while in coalition with the Progressive Democrats and later with the Irish Labour Party. He used his time as Taoiseach to secure billions in European Union grants to help rebuild Ireland’s dated infrastructure in the early 1990s. Such grants helped produce the so-called Celtic Tiger boom of the following years.

He led Fianna Fail for almost three years and served as a cabinet minister five times from 1979-91, his portfolios including transport, finance, industry and commerce, industry and energy, and posts and telegraphs. In both the transport and posts and telegraphs ministries, he helped revolutionise Ireland’s telecommunications system and bring it into the modern era.

As Minister for Industry and Energy, he was a driving force in setting up the new National Grid and established a gas pipeline from Cork to Dublin.

Albert Reynolds, youngest of four children of an undertaker, was born in 1932 in the village of Roosky (sometimes spelt Rooskey and meaning “swamp” or “bog”) on the river Shannon in County Roscommon. On a scholarship, he attended Summerhill College, also known as the College of the Immaculate Conception, a secondary school for boys in Sligo, north-west Ireland, where he first became an entrepreneur, taking over the school tuck shop and selling chocolate bars for a healthy profit.

He could not afford to go to university and started work as a clerk with Irish Rail. He also worked for CIE, Ireland’s national public transport company, until setting up in business himself. He had a factory producing pet food – C&D Foods – but also spent a spell promoting music concerts in dance halls around Ireland.

He and his brother launched a chain of dance halls, calling them “ballrooms of romance” and attracting acts from Ireland’s own crooner Joe Dolan to global greats including Roy Orbison and Jim Reeves.

Before going into politics, he also had a bacon factory and a business exporting salmon and lobster, winning lucrative contracts with British supermarkets. Friends said he was always able to decipher the small print in EU regulations to allow him to qualify for grants.

He also invested in a local newspaper, the Longford News, and would spend most of his life between homes in Longford and Dublin.

Reynolds was already 45 when he entered the Dáil Éireann (Irish Parliament) after winning the constituency of Longford-Westmeath in the 1977 general election. After 12 years in his various cabinet positions, Reynolds was ousted by Fianna Fail leader Charles Haughey in 1991 for challenging Haughey’s leadership. Months later, however, Reynolds was elected party leader and became Taoiseach in coalition with the Progressive Democrats Party (PDP). In 1993, after that coalition foundered, Reynolds joined what had seemed like an unlikely coalition partnership with the Irish Labour Party led by Dick Spring.

The new coalition promised more open government. As Taoiseach, Reynolds oversaw the decriminalisation of homosexuality, greater access to contraceptives and the right of Irish women to travel to the UK for abortions. But other issues brought widespread criticism, notably an amnesty he declared for tax-avoiders. And then it emerged that his pet food firm may have benefitted from a somewhat opaque deal involving Saudi investors.

Another scandal erupted when a tribunal ruled that, while he was Minister for Industry and Commerce, Reynolds had “acted in a manner not consistent with the national interest” when he approved $100 million of state-funded export insurance to Irish beef tycoon Larry Goodman for exports to Iraq.

Ireland was in serious economic crisis at the time. The tribunal said it had not been able to reach a conclusion about Reynolds’ motives and so he claimed he had been vindicated.

It will undoubtedly be for his role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland that Reynolds will historically be remembered.

His old friend John Major was one of the last people to visit him in Ireland after his Alzheimer’s condition deteriorated last Christmas. Reynolds once recalled that, although he and Major had a good relationship, “we took lumps out of each other” while discussing the stance of Sinn Fein and the IRA towards the peace process.

Another former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, who served as finance minister under Mr Reynolds, said his role in the Downing Street Declaration was a critical point in the road to peace in Ireland. “If there hadn’t have been a Downing Street Declaration, I don’t think there would have been a (IRA) ceasefire in the first place.”

The current Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, is offering the Reynolds family a state funeral, as is normal after the deaths of Prime Ministers.

Albert Reynolds is survived by his wife Kathleen (née Coen) and seven children – Miriam, Philip, Emer, Leonie, Abbie, Cathy and Andrea.