Albert Reynolds: Politician who helped bring peace to Northern Ireland but could not keep together two coalition governments


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As Irish prime minister in the early 1990s Albert Reynolds played a pivotal role in the peace process, which he enthusiastically promoted in the teeth of widespread hostility in its highly controversial early stages. It was a politically perilous business, but that was part of the Reynolds make-up.

It did not always work for him in Dublin politics: in fact his recklessness brought his two administrations to premature ends. But it worked in the peace process, producing the historic IRA ceasefire of 1994 which will guarantee him a place in Irish history as one of its architects. He readily, indeed proudly, acknowledged his penchant for the precarious, telling the Irish parliament, the Dail: "Throughout my life, in politics and business, I have been delighted to be a risk-taker. If you aren't a risk-taker, you will achieve nothing."

Although his abilities brought him the premiership and the breakthrough in the peace process, his high-wire acts meant he had less than three years as Taoiseach. Many thought that with a little less risk-taking, and possibly a little less pride, he could have had been much longer at the top. He was a self-made man whose success in business gave him an independent streak: one observer called him "enormously stubborn, to the point of self-destruction." In politics he simply could not handle the idea of coalition cabinets.

Coming from the unfashionable Irish midlands, he was not noted at school for any academic bent. He started out as a railway clerk but his entrepreneurial instincts saw him promoting music in country ballrooms. He then switched to what proved a highly lucrative dog food business. He was a natural salesman: one of his techniques was to open a can of dog food and eat some himself.

He came late to politics after amassing a personal fortune, reaching the Dail as a Fianna Fail representative in his forties. He did not stay a backbencher for long. He initially backed the late Charles Haughey, the later discredited Fianna Fail leader who dominated the party.

Joining Haughey's inner circle, he was promoted to cabinet posts in charge of industry, transport and finance. But after some years he broke with Haughey, joining the ranks of those who launched periodic "heaves" against him. When Reynolds issued a deliberately provocative statement Haughey sacked him within the hour. Reynolds admitted there was "bad blood between Haughey and me at the end."

Haughey was forced to step down in 1992. The episode which brought him down may or may not have involved Reynolds, since it centred on an associate of his, Sean Doherty, a former Justice minister who had backed Haughey's long-standing denials that he knew anything about the tapping of the phones of senior journalists. When Doherty changed his story and announced that he had personally handed Haughey transcripts of calls, Haughey was finished. Reynolds became Fianna Fail leader by 61 votes to 16.

No proof ever emerged that Reynolds persuaded Doherty to blow the whistle. But Reynolds was the clear beneficiary, and many murky things happened in the shark-infested waters of the Fianna Fail party.

His first act as prime minister was to sack eight senior Haughey loyalists, a move described as "the great chainsaw massacre" which earned him the nickname of "the Longford Slasher." In his memoirs Reynolds recalled the episode with something akin to relish. "It was all over in 15 minutes," he wrote. "I called them in one by one and I said, 'You won't be appointed, thank you.' And they went out, most of them too shocked even to question me."

Much of cosmopolitan Dublin treated Reynolds with disdain. He was called the "country and western Taoiseach" because of his dance hall days: he didn't seem to mind this, appearing on TV in a cowboy hat and boots crooning a country tune. What he did mind was the fact that the government he inherited from Haughey was a coalition.

This really rankled with Reynolds, particularly since he had a difficult relationship with his new coalition colleague, Des O'Malley. Reynolds wrote: "I sensed from the very beginning that our relationship was already too soured for the coalition to survive for long." His patronising characterisation of the coalition as a "temporary little arrangement" worsened the bad feeling, but when he called O'Malley dishonest his government fell apart.

In the ensuing elections Reynolds and Fianna Fail received a drubbing. He seemed finished, but after weeks of wrangling emerged at the head of another government. But to get back into power he had to accept another coalition, this time with the Labour Party as a much stronger partner. Once again, his inability to manage a coalition led to his undoing.

But meanwhile he had inherited the fledgling peace process, which was a dangerous venture – the IRA was still killing people – yet one full of promise. The project immediately appealed to his risk-taking nature. On becoming prime minister he was briefed on secret talks between the North's Nationalist leader John Hume and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams. While Haughey had been cautious, Reynolds' intuition led to him pursuing the project with enthusiasm: he respected Hume's belief that the IRA were ready to move away from violence.

The years that followed saw a great many clandestine contacts. Hume, Reynolds and the republicans exchanged documents via channels of communication which survived political upheavals and numerous acts of IRA violence, including devastating bombings in London. Reynolds put much effort into persuading John Major, then prime minister, to join in the venture. Major found Reynolds "easy to get on with, naturally cheery and loquacious", and the two premiers were in the habit of writing to each other and speaking frequently on the telephone, often calling each other at home.

Major recalled in his memoirs: "I liked Albert a lot, and I thought we could move things forward together." But Reynolds always wanted to move faster. He was convinced the IRA was ready to end its campaign but Major, faced with continuing violence, was more doubtful.

The Reynolds-Major relationship, and the entire peace process, came under immense strain in late 1993 when an IRA attack on Belfast's loyalist Shankill Road went wrong, killing the bomber and nine Protestant civilians. Reynolds recalled: "I was in complete despair. I was so appalled at what had happened that I honestly thought the whole thing would probably blow sky-high."

Things rapidly got even worse when Gerry Adams carried the coffin of the bomber. Reynolds described a phone call from Major, who could hardly contain himself: "He said, 'What's this about? How do you expect me to continue with any process when I take up the papers this morning and in every paper on the front page is Gerry Adams carrying a coffin?'

"I said, 'Look, John, you have to understand that if the guy didn't carry the coffin he wouldn't be able to maintain his credibility with that organisation and bring people with him.'"

Reynolds and Major felt let down by each other and held a summit which included an hour-long private meeting without officials. Major recalled it as "the frankest and fiercest exchanges I had with any fellow-leader." A Dublin aide described Reynolds emerging to report, "It went all right – he chewed the bollocks off me, but I took a few lumps out of him."

The summit continued but tensions remained so high and Reynolds argued so remorselessly that the normally mild-mannered Major snapped a pencil in two. As Major recalled it, "I was pretty frustrated and I clenched my fist and banged the table. The pencil broke in my hand and scurried right across the table. I think everybody thought it was a piece of ill-temper. It wasn't, it was sheer frustration. It may have been a good thing – it may have ruined the pencil but I think it concentrated minds."

Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd recalled: "Albert was testy, determined and twinkling – twinkling. I had the sense that he was enjoying himself and I rather warmed to that. I also had the sense that he wanted an agreement; I warmed to that, too."

The peace process eventually delivered first an IRA ceasefire then the devolved government which today functions in Belfast. It was for Reynolds a moment of glory: the deal-maker had made the greatest deal of his life. Yet even as he was being lauded – there was talk of a Nobel Peace Prize – his handling of his cabinet proved fatal. Within months of the ceasefire his Labour partners pulled out of government and his time was over. The evident causes included disputes over a beef tribunal and suspicious delays in extraditing a paedophile priest.

Reynolds believed he had been set up: "I'm being led to my execution. Somebody is doing this, somebody is orchestrating it." As he left the Dail after resigning he looked round wonderingly and said, "You know, it is amazing that you can cross all the large hurdles, but it's the small ones that trip you up." That will serve as an epitaph for a politician whose efforts helped save lives but could not save his own administrations.


Albert Reynolds, businessman and politician: born Rooskey, Co Roscommon 3 November 1932; married Kathleen Coen (five daughters, two sons); died 21 August 2014.