Albert Reynolds: Razzmatazz politician and supreme negotiator

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Showman and dealmaker defied detractors when he brokered peace in North

It was a Sunday sometime in the late 1960s. My father and I were trundling across the midlands in the State car, en route to visit the new pool in the town of Longford. My father (Brian Lenihan) had brought me along for the visit because there was the prospect that I might get the opportunity to swim in the as-yet-unopened municipal pool.

What made this pool unique was that its construction had been pushed through by an ambitious committee of local businessmen in the town, which included Dessie Hynes, Albert Reynolds and, I think, also Matty Lyons. Frank Carter, the local Fianna Fáil deputy, was also on the committee. Though I did not know it that day, the members would all become instrumental in both the business and political careers of Reynolds as they subsequently unfolded.

For Reynolds, involvement in the campaign to secure a local swimming pool underlined his own community credentials and paved his way to becoming head of the town’s Chamber of Commerce, as well as setting a path to a new career in local politics. Reynolds was originally from the other side of the Shannon, but had settled on Longford as the place where he would raise his family and set up his business life.

At the time, my father was the leading cabinet minister in the locality, representing the Roscommon-Leitrim constituency from his home base in Athlone. What impressed him that day was the fact that local business had been the agent of change to bring about a community amenity.

Reynolds, in his political career, was in some ways emblematic of the influence of business over politics from the 1960s on and the clash of values between those championing the public interest and those imbued with the motive of private profit or wealth creation.

Modernising influence

In my father’s view, on that Sunday in the 1960s, the idea of benign private-sector involvement was both modernising and extending a new community benefit. Reynolds and many others, under the influence of Seán Lemass, had this huge hankering to push the country down an industrial path that would help shake off the comparative failures of the new Irish State.

Reynolds drew a great deal of his emotional inspiration in politics from Lemass. Both men had a psychological impatience with the status quo as it existed in Ireland. Reynolds, with his business approach, was the classic thrusting young man, making his own way on his own merit.

As the 1960s turned into the 1970s, Frank Carter made Reynolds his political understudy of sorts and asked him to stand in the local elections. In the same period, Reynolds teamed up with another of the committee members from the pool project, local businessman Matty Lyons, who became a guide for Reynolds for business deals in the agrifood sector.

Both of these early mentors were disposed of by Reynolds in a fairly ruthless fashion. He and Lyons would fall out over the ownership and control of what became the petfood company C&D Foods.

Reynolds famously made a fortune from the “ballrooms of romance” showbiz phenomenon of the 1960s along with his brother Jim. This entertainment business mushroomed into a chain of venues criss-crossing the country and tapped into the emergence of a whole music industry, with local Irish stars and acts jostling for position with international talent that was becoming aware for the first time of the money that could be made playing gigs in Ireland.

The brothers had a reputation for honesty in a business dominated by cut-throat agents, dodgy managers, poor treatment of bands and under-the-counter cash payments. Reynolds emerged from the ballroom business with his reputation intact and, more importantly, his personality and skills honed to deal with people and cut quick deals with a big long-term payoff. However, his biggest payout came after a difficult legal action against Jim, which resulted in a large cash settlement and Reynolds quitting the dancehall business.

The people skills Reynolds had learned in the front-of-house element of showbiz made him a suitable candidate for political success, while the big money he had made was also a huge benefit to his electoral sustainability. Reynolds’s campaigns were lavish, well-postered affairs, leading one commentator to describe Longford, tongue in cheek, as something of a one-party state.

Kathy Sheridan wrote in The Irish Times of Reynolds being a Longford man bringing “razzmatazz” politics to the Irish midlands. The man himself, she reported “was bounding through both counties, patting babies and pinning the odd fiver beneath a pram hood, trailing a heady air of money, glamour, ferocious energy and US-style razzmatazz. It felt like Hollywood come to Longford.”

Rapid promotion

Within two years of his election to the Dáil, Reynolds was appointed to cabinet under Charlie Haughey. His promotion was as rapid and as unexpected as his behind-the-scenes involvement in the backbench revolt that had dispensed with the then taoiseach, Jack Lynch.

Reynolds surprised his cabinet colleagues, according to my father, by putting in a huge request for funds to modernise the country’s ramshackle telephone service. His boldness surprised colleagues, but Reynolds was something of a protege for Haughey at this stage. However, their relationship soon soured as it became obvious Reynolds was after the job of taoiseach.

Meanwhile, I had become a reporter based in Leinster House. I observed the Haughey decline while becoming friendly with Reynolds, who became a valuable source of information.

Albert Reynolds was an exceedingly proud man both in terms of his family life and what he saw as his honourable dealing with people in his public life.

The full toxic strength of the Haughey publicity machine was turned on Reynolds. To the rather more elite, intellectually refined (in their own mind at least) group around Haughey, Reynolds was a parvenu and an unworthy example of parochial values harnessed to what Haughey himself dismissed as the “country and western” alliance.

In fact, Reynolds was so stung by this treatment that he worked avidly to leave his mark in politics, like someone told by an elderly schoolmaster that he would never amount to anything.

Albert Reynolds was an exceedingly proud man both in terms of his family life and what he saw as his honourable dealing with people in his public life. He was hugely media friendly and comfortable around journalists. His ability to listen, adopt a neutral demeanour and soak up information was a marvel. Much of this skill set became hugely advantageous when it came to his successful railroading, in the positive sense, of the early part of the peace process.

Reynolds could, quite literally, talk to anybody, but most of all he could be very candid in what he said. To some extent, this overfamiliarity with the media and his habit of mounting legal actions to defend his reputation led to sections of the journalism profession turning against him.

Political difficulties

His tenure as taoiseach was comparatively short, and at an electoral level his one election in 1992 was a fiasco. He compounded his political difficulties by his poor handling of his relationship with Des O'Malley and, later, during his second coalition government, with Labour's Dick Spring. The two Reynolds coalitions were terminally scarred by controversy – the beef tribunal, the X case and a passport-for-investment scheme which saw Reynolds's petfood company receive government funding.

His outstanding legacy would come with the peace process. Its early development, with the groundbreaking discussions between John Hume and Gerry Adams, took most people by surprise. Garret FitzGerald, a former taoiseach and columnist with this paper, was forthright in his condemnation of the 1988 dialogue, but it was the origin of the subsequent runaway peace process that reached its height with the signing, by Reynolds and British prime minister John Major, of the Downing Street Declaration in 1993; Major would describe Reynolds as a "supreme" negotiator.

During the fevered period from 1988 to the eventual IRA/loyalist ceasefire of 1994, I was a working journalist covering the process; at first in London as Westminster correspondent for the Irish News, and then back in Dublin as a radio reporter. Reynolds, with his easy manner, co-opted me as an intermediary in the process.

The experience ultimately led me to reassess the relevance of politics to my own and others’ lives. I changed my view of politics as a result and opted to leave journalism for a career in public life.

The private view I got of Reynolds was an eye-opener. In the bewildering turn of events leading up to the ceasefires, Reynolds was handling and working a series of influential and competing networks, all of them kept separate from each other. He was doing things personally that must have been a nightmare for both his established Civil Service advisers and the more conservative types who can inhabit the security side of the Irish State.

Peace first

Reynolds, privately and unknown to many, was meeting with the IRA and other paramilitaries on their own turf. He effectively endorsed John Hume’s new approach, which was to put “peace first” rather than have talks about talks.

The unique contribution Reynolds made was his ability to make friends and influence people. This is not as simple as it sounds when you are dealing with interests as diverse as paramilitary groups, political parties, difficult parliamentary arithmetic in Westminster and a vicious escalation of hostilities simultaneous to the tentative feelers for peace.

Unknown to everybody, and well below the radar, Reynolds had made high-profile connections with important figures in Washington, with John Major (which became a sincere friendship) and with a litany of figures tied to groups in the North. He brought a business rather than a political attitude to the challenge in hand.

Many before Reynolds’s arrival to power were sceptical about his talents, my own father being one of them. My father soon changed his mind when, late in his own political career, he spent a great deal of time with Reynolds. That was all to do with the peace process. Albert Reynolds deserves a lot of credit that has not always been his due.

Conor Lenihan is a former Fianna Fáil government minister. His new book, Albert Reynolds: Risktaker for Peace, is published by Merrion Press