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
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.
He was also fiercely protective of his reputation and wouldn’t stand for anyone calling his honesty or integrity into question. This led to his legal joust in London when he sued the Sunday Times for libel. He won his case but was awarded a derisory penny. Reynolds looked like he had been hit by a juggernaut. He appealed and the law lords ordered a retrial after criticising the trial judge’s handling of the original hearing.
A delighted Reynold gave a quick interview afterwards and told British journalists who might need some more quotes: “You can get me at the Ritz!” In the meantime, he treated the two visiting Irish hacks to cocktails at the Savoy bar followed by a lavish lunch at the Savoy Grill.
“Hello Mr Albert,” said the maitre d’ when he entered.
“You’ll have a drink, have what you want, anything at all,” said the then teetotal Albert. One of us fancied a drop of red. The other wondered about a glass of white. The sommelier mentioned grape varieties. “Give her a bottle of the red so, and he’ll have a bottle of the white.” The afternoon flew in.
It’s strange – Albert could flash the cash but he wasn’t flash. He just liked to enjoy himself and treat the family, happy out. Albert and Kathleen loved the style. They loved the sun too. They were never out of Marbella. But at the races, taoiseach Reynolds was more likely to be found enjoying himself in a bar near the parade ring with family and friends than in some corporate box.
He must have been a nightmare for his security people. During the 1994 World Cup in America, he was staying in the Fitzpatrick Hotel in Manhattan. We knew that because a secret service man materialised in the lift one evening, steadfastly refusing to comment when people kept asking: “Is Albert in yet?”
They tried to keep the public away from him in the lobby, but hadn’t a hope. Even though he didn’t “take a drink”, it didn’t stop Reynolds from staying up all hours. A throwback to his dancehall days.
Albert couldn’t stay easy. During his selection convention in the Roscommon village of Athleague, the candidates had to stay in a side room until after the votes were counted. So Reynolds climbed out the window and went off to have something to eat.
When minister for finance, Albert always enjoyed the pre-speech photocall, standing in front of Leinster House holding up his briefcase. One budget morning, we arrived at his spacious Ballsbridge apartment to interview him on his big day. The family was having breakfast in the kitchen, Kathleen firing out rounds of buttered toast and brown bread to all and sundry.
She stuck on extra sausages and rashers when we arrived. “I don’t know what sort of tie to choose for Albert today,” she said, as the minister stood by sheepishly. So we went into the bedroom and she laid a selection of silk ties out on the bed.
“Come in here, Albert!” He stood quietly as one tie after another was held under his chin. That’s not to say he was a pussycat. He proved that on the day he became taoiseach and cleared out Haughey’s old cabinet.
He showed no mercy. Some of the ministers, Ray Burke among them, suspected they wouldn’t be saved so they abandoned their offices and phones. Two civil servants were dispatched to find the stray ministers, hunting for them around the corridors and in the bar. Finally, all were assembled and sent up to Albert who dismissed them, one by one, in less than half an hour. That afternoon in the Dáil, you could see they were fuming – some got their revenge in due course. It didn’t take a feather out of Reynolds. It was just business.
He adored the helicopter. His press secretary, Seán Duignan, didn’t. He’d be green around the gills after a flight but not a bother on Albert. In fact, he would fall asleep as soon as it took off and enjoy a little nap before his next engagement.
Reynolds didn’t have a long tenure as taoiseach. His first coalition with the PDs fell apart in no time and he had a terrible general election. Yet he managed to squeak into government again with Dick Spring’s Labour Party. That didn’t end well either.
Albert’s achievements – not least his role in the peace process – are a fine legacy for such a short spell at the top. “Give it as it was, tell it as it is, that’s me.”
There was a final sting in the tail. Albert was shabbily treated by Fianna Fáil when Mary McAleese was chosen over him to be its candidate in the presidential election. He had been encouraged to put his name forward and was then publicly shoved aside. On the day, he was humiliated and deeply hurt, but, as ever, he moved on.
Albert Reynolds liked to stress his door was always open to people. Yesterday, it closed. He’s moved on to a new deal. “Howaya God. I can’t help noticing that in your house there are many mansions. And d’aul halls are pretty full. Did you ever think of booking a few bands for them?”