Profile: Gambler on a roll: From pet food to the Irish parliament. Alan Murdoch on the rise of a 'do-it-now' politician: Albert Reynolds

Click to follow
The Independent Online
FIVE DAYS before Albert Reynolds and John Major unveiled the joint declaration for peace in Northern Ireland, the Taoiseach was shouted down by a female Opposition MP as he tried to answer a question. With a dismissive wave of the hand, he complained: 'This is women now. You cannot even give way to somebody who wants to give you information.'

The Dail's women tore into him. 'We are neither deaf nor stupid,' retorted one. Another denounced his remarks as 'most offensive to women', while Nora Owen, recipient of the jibe, demanded an apology. Reynolds adamantly refused.

Reynolds has never bothered much with finesse. His political style is in sharp contrast to the almost royal style of his predecessor, Charles Haughey. And though the Dublin press called it 'the most politically incorrect statement of the year', there were allies prepared to point out that this was not malicious sexism (he shares a house with his wife Kathleen and five strong-willed adult daughters): 'He was just sick of being ganged up on.'

The Fianna Fail (FF) party leader's brazen directness is part of his plain-man's-politician appeal. Only he would think of greeting the German Chancellor with 'Howya, Helmut.' A man who made his first fortune running dance halls in the late Fifties, Reynolds' idea of a good night out is watching his favourite singer, Whitney Houston. (He reviewed her recent Dublin concert for local radio.) His minders may have persuaded him to be seen at the opera but they have failed to make him look as if he enjoys it.

THE TAOISEACH seems a disarmingly straightforward man for the delicate diplomacy facing him. Mr Haughey would have dearly loved to have been the Fianna Fail leader to settle the Northern Ireland problem but it seems now that his more modest successor could get a great deal closer.

It is all the more remarkable that, just 12 months ago, Reynolds' political career was close to disintegration. He became Taoiseach in February 1992. Less then a week later he faced a crisis for which his previous government posts - transport, posts and telegraphs, industry and finance - had given him little preparation. A 14-year-old pregnant girl, allegedly the victim of a rape, was barred from travelling abroad for an abortion. The case brought international opprobium on Ireland and haunted Reynolds the entire year.

The emphatic Irish endorsement of the Maastricht treaty in a referendum was a small triumph. But then came a wounding public inquiry into the beef industry. The question was whether tens of millions of pounds in state export credits had been properly given for Irish sales to Iraq. The investigations were comparable in political weight to the Scott inquiry into British arms sales. Questions were raised about Mr Reynolds' actions as a minister. A poisonous row followed with one of his chief accusers, Des O'Malley, leader of his Progressive Democrat coalition partners. Reynolds firmly denied any wrongdoing; he called O'Malley's testimony to the tribunal 'reckless, irresponsible and dishonest'. The dispute led to an election in November 1992 and the end of the coalition with the PD. Reynolds was not sorry - he had loathed the condescending arrogance of some PD leaders and had enraged them by dubbing the coalition 'a temporary little arrangement'. But the Beef Tribunal has yet to produce its report and the cloud still hangs over the Taoiseach.

Fianna Fail's election campaign was uninspiring. The party lost seats, and senior colleagues urged Reynolds to go into opposition. A gambler, he hung on. Then, surprisingly, Dick Spring's Labour Party chose to row in with Reynolds' FF, a party whose record Spring had publicly lacerated.

Resurrection is not too strong a word for Reynolds' comeback. In his first term he was uncertain. When he got a second chance, he grabbed it. Several social reforms are on the way, a divorce referendum is due next year and, partly because of a momentum created by his own speeches, Reynolds is part of what is described as the best hope for peace in Northern Ireland for 25 years.

His supporters, like John Major's supporters, reckon that, whatever his other failings, he does well at the top international level, with his EC partners. Ireland initially got a seven-year European aid commitment of IR pounds 8bn, an alluring capital spending dowry that has made it much easier to draw up a detailed joint coalition programme. In talks that ended two months ago, Dublin lost IR pounds 700m from that initial aid allocation. The public decided that it could hav been worse and that Reynolds' faultlessly efficient preparation of the Irish application had secured the best deal possible. Tireless in a crisis, Reynolds kept up calls to Dick Spring, now Foreign Minister, well into a night of Brussels bartering to check and agree every step. Labour's leader was heard to ask: 'Does that man never sleep?' A colleague said: 'Reynolds could have sustained big damage, but didn't'

The success of the Reynolds/Spring partnership on Northern Ireland policy was not widely expected. There is little instinctive rapport between them, but each now strongly respects the contribution of the other. Reynolds now seems likely to see through his full term of office to 1997.

And Reynolds has turned himself into an unexpectedly good plain-English communicator on the Northern question. Colleagues joke that he cannot pass a microphone without talking to it, but this has become an asset in recent weeks as he has tirelessly laid down a barrage of high profile interviews in Dublin, and with the British and international media.

He has clinched the public argument that political progress will come more quickly, and perhaps only, in the eased climate after violence ends. Consequently he was able to force John Major back towards the compromises vital to IRA agreement on a ceasefire after London had strayed away from the 'peace-first' agenda.

ALBERT REYNOLDS was born 58 years ago, the son of a coach builder, small farmer and undertaker, in the small town of Rooskey, Co. Roscommon in the Irish Midlands. He began his working life as a junior clerk in a builders' merchants. Then he was a furniture polisher, and then a book-keeper for the turf (peat) fuel body, Bord na Mona. He studied accountancy by correspondence course. He passed seven years in a modest but steady job, doing the books and selling tickets in out-of-the-way railway stations from Drumshambo to Ballymote, where he met his wife Kathleen.

A sideline that he began with his brother Joe - promoting dances with showbands - proved increasingly lucrative. Together they built 16 modest 'ballrooms of romance' between 1958 and 1961. Soon Albert packed in the day job, made Kenny Ball a star in Ireland and became adept at hiring and firing. His endlessly genial manner is the result of socialising seven nights a week in his dance halls, he claims. He sold up in 1967 before dabbling in property, and buying and reviving an ailing Dublin bacon factory.

The bacon factory turned him into a millionaire. He noticed that people were actually paid to take away the offal. Why, he asked, should potential profit go to waste? C & D Foods was in business by 1970, producing tinned pet food. It won big supermarket contracts, including Sainsbury's, and Reynolds' alert challenge to a loophole in Brussels regulations won him a useful EC grant.

He also invested in a cinema and a local newspaper in Longford. Naturally, the latter supported him when he began running for council and Dail elections in 1975 and 1977 respectively. A journalist working for it in the late Seventies recalled seeing as many as 10 photographs of the owner in a single issue.

Though a lifelong abstainer from alcohol, he is happy to spend time on constituency business among ordinary friends who do like a drink. His main outside interest is horse racing and the odd bet, with annual gambling trips to Cheltenham and Galway races. He and his wife both enjoy the sun, and sport a deep tan for most of the year aided by trips to the Canaries or the South of France. They have seven children, five daughters and two sons.

There is not much evidence of profound political commitment - Reynolds' interests are in management, not politics. He took no part in politics at all until he was 39 - though the division between politics and business is not always a clear one in Ireland - and then became a county councillor, entering the Dail at his first attempt in 1977. In just two years he had joined the cabinet as minister for posts and telegraphs. His affable demeanour has another side, seen mostly by civil servants: the do-it- now boss.

'He would never want to know why we couldn't do something,' says a former subordinate. 'Senior civil servants never knew what he was likely to do or say next.'

Kicking his way through red tape to modernise the telephone system or enact reform of obsolete company law, he is seen as a politician keen to inject private sector attitudes into sleepy public sector management. He has described himself as 'a one-page man', suggesting he might not bother reading any memo longer than that.

Reynolds the businessman knows well the benefits of peace in Northern Ireland. His government experience in industry and finance departments has left him in no doubt about the damaging effect of the Troubles on the State's fortunes. The security cost to Irish taxpayers per capita is approximately three times as much as to their British counterparts. Tourism, foreign investment and domestic enterprise have all suffered. One of the first moderate proposals Reynolds latched on to last year for non-threatening co-operation with the North was an Ulster Bank blueprint for a single Irish economic strategy within the EU.

The Taoiseach has won round one in his public propaganda pitch. He now faces a second test: the trickier, some might say murkier, task of sending discreet signals to wavering republicans to create a favourable climate for Provisional backing of the declaration. It sounds like a job for somebody with a track record in haggling.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments