Obituary: Straight-talking businessman rose to the top of Irish politics

Albert Reynolds showed ‘nobody should be afraid of peace’ as he pursued Northern solution

Thu, Aug 21, 2014, 08:24

The former taoiseach Albert Reynolds, who has died aged 81, made Northern Ireland his priority when he took office in 1992.

Building on the groundwork laid by his predecessor, and putting the traditional aspiration to a united Ireland to one side, he became one of the main architects of a new dispensation based on agreement and consent.

Alone among political leaders, he welcomed the Hume-Adams talks and sought to include Sinn Féin in the search for a settlement.

“I’m breaking a few rules,” he said. “First, instead of continuing to marginalise these people/ [IRA/Sinn Féin/], I’m going to try to pull them in...they must be shown the benefits of ending the ‘armed struggle’ and going the constitutional road.”

Reynolds also encouraged the involvement of Irish-America and participation of US president Bill Clinton.

His rapport with UK prime minister John Major ensured that the British were brought gradually along the road, and the Downing Street Declaration of 1993 proved to be a milestone in Anglo-Irish relations.

But it was his contribution to the IRA ceasefire in August 1994 that was his greatest achievement. This opened the way for Sinn Féin’s participation in the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation in Dublin, a dress rehearsal for all-party talks subsequently convened in Belfast.

Reynolds was often derided for his membership of Fianna Fáil’s “country and western” wing, and being a “one-page man”. He was known to drive a hard bargain, and liked to run his own show - whether in business or politics.

But Mary Holland, a seasoned observer of the Troubles, credited him with almost single-handedly providing the momentum to keep the peace process on course.

”Looking back over the past 25 years,” she wrote in 1994, “it is impossible to imagine any other taoiseach capable of pulling off this outrageous coup de théâtre.”

Born in 1932, he was the youngest of four children of John P. Reynolds and his wife Catherine (née Dillon), and grew up in Rooskey, Co Roscommon. He won a scholarship to Summerhill College, Sligo, and worked at several jobs before joining Bord na Móna. He worked for the company at Ballydermot, CoKildare, where he developed an interest in horse racing.

Next he joined CIE, and was posted to Dromad, Co. Leitrim. He was transferred to Ballymote, Co. Sligo, before finally moving to Longford.

During the mid-1950s he was active in the Rooskey carnival committee, which was established to raise funds to repair the local Catholic church. Funds were raised through an annual dancing carnival, held in a marquee erected for the purpose. The top dancebands of the day were booked and after three years the necessary funds were raised.

Reynolds decided to continue with the carnival on a commercial basis, and later with his brother Jim built a dancehall in Rooskey which could accommodate 2,000 dancers. The Cloudland ballroom became the first of 14 halls operated throughout the country by Reynolds Dancing Ltd. The Longford Arms hotel was the centre of operations.

The growth of the company coincided with the dawn of the showband era and the Reynolds brothers brought leading bands such as the Clipper Carlton, Royal, Miami, Capitol and Dixies to rural Ireland. Dancers turned up in droves.

With business flourishing, Reynolds resigned from CIE in 1961. The brothers booked US acts such as Johnny Cash, Chubby Checker, Roy Orbison and Jim Reeves to tour, and they in turn were supported by local bands such as the Drifters and Mighty Avons.

Another touring act Reynolds booked was Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen, then topping the charts with Midnight in Moscow. Reynolds built his Longford home, Mount Carmel, with his share of the profits from the band’s 10-day tour.

When the showbands’ popularity waned, Reynolds introduced bingo to the dancehalls. In 1966 he ended the business relationship with his brother and cut all links with the ballroom chain.

Developing his interest in politics, he was associated with Independent Longford-Westmeath TD Joe Sheridan. At national level he worked with Neil Blaney on various by-election campaigns, helping Des O’Malley win a seat in Limerick.

On the business front, he bought a bacon plant in Dublin’s Liberties, and also became involved in exporting fish and seafood. He bought a share in a Longford cinema, invested in a finance company and became publisher of the Longford News. And he was a co-founder of C & D Pet Foods Ltd, which won a lucrative contract to supply pet foods to Sainsburys supermarket chain in the UK. Within a few years he had parted ways with his original partner and became the sole owner.

A renewed interest in the entertainment industry led him to purchase the Showboat, a cabaret venue in Malahide, Co Dublin.

By now a member of the Fianna Fáil national executive, he was a successful candidate in the 1974 local elections. He stood in the 1977 general election, having won the nomination over sitting TD Frank Carter, and became one of four deputies elected for Longford-Westmeath.

Two years later, after Jack Lynch stood down as Fianna Fáil leader, he backed Charles Haughey in the ensuing leadership contest. It was a risk, but one worth taking. He was rewarded with a ministerial appointment and took control of the department of posts of telegraph, with Mark Killilea as minister of state. Transport was added to the portfolio shortly after his appointment.