A lion in business and politics, a pussycat at home

Achievements, not least his role in the peace process, a fine legacy for such a short spell at the top

Taoiseach Albert Reynolds in talks with the SDLP  in 1992, (from left):  deputy leader Seamus Mallon MP, leader John Hume and Eddie McGrady MP at Government Buildings. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh/The Irish Times

Taoiseach Albert Reynolds in talks with the SDLP in 1992, (from left): deputy leader Seamus Mallon MP, leader John Hume and Eddie McGrady MP at Government Buildings. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh/The Irish Times

Fri, Aug 22, 2014, 01:00

It was closing time in the pubs and clubs around Kildare Street by the time the meeting ended. Giddy Saturday-night drinkers joined the shivering journalists at the gates of Leinster House and waited to hear from Fianna Fáil.

It was already known that wily old Charlie Haughey had survived the heave. Albert Reynolds, the minister for finance who moved against him, was facing into a long stretch on the backbenches. There was a festive mood on the street. Some of the revellers made balloons out of condoms and batted them about.

Finally, the gates opened, the crowd parted and Reynolds was driven through the TV lights and shouting reporters. The crowd started to sing: “Albert’s in a Lada, Albert’s in a Lada. Dah-daah-daah-dah, Dah-daah-daah-dah!”

In other words, no more ministerial Mercs for him. Albert saw the funny side. When he returned to Leinster House the following week, he was in a sleek, new, chocolate-brown Jaguar. “The children bought it for me,” he grinned. “Nice, isn’t it?”

That was Albert for you. The self-made, matter-of-fact millionaire. He didn’t need a State car from Charlie. And he wasn’t in thrall to somebody else’s cash. Albert was his own man. That was back in November 1991. Little did he know then that he would be parking up that Jag a little sooner than even a man of his ambition might have expected.

By January, Haughey was gone and Reynolds was taoiseach. On the night before his elevation, Albert attended a function in Drogheda, a posse of journalists in his wake, a few anxious advisers on the sidelines and a beefed-up Garda contingent watching on. The apparatus of power was swinging into place, but Albert swore he wouldn’t change. “What you see is what you get!” And that’s pretty much how it remained.

But then, taoiseach Reynolds was comfortable in his own skin. You only had to look at the way he used to greet German chancellor Helmut Kohl: big smile, hearty handshake and a friendly shout of:“Howaya Helmet!”

Straight-talking, charming, generous, devoted to his wife Kathleen and their seven children, Reynolds always seemed in good humour. Remarkably, given the line of work he fell into in his middle years, he never became cynical.

By then though he was already a successful businessman who had worked his way to a fortune thanks to his ability to strike a good deal. Nothing fazed him.

Mortifyingly left waiting on the tarmac to welcome Boris Yeltsin at Shannon Airport while the Russian president snored off his liquid lunch on the aircraft, Reynolds shrugged off the incident and declared: “When a man is ill, a man is ill”.

Insults bounced off him. Family was different. Sometimes, when he spoke of his children, he would well up with emotion, and when his beloved Kathleen was diagnosed with breast cancer, Albert couldn’t hide his anguish. She came through it.

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