Reynolds thought the nomination was his. But when Ahern showed him his ballot paper, he knew that all was lost

 

Before the general election, Bertie Ahern met Albert Reynolds for lunch and a chat and they discussed the contest for the party's nomination for the Presidency. Mr Ahern asked him if he was interested.

Sources close to Reynolds now claim he was even told by Ahern that he had "the best chance of winning the Presidency for Fianna Fail" and would he consider being a candidate? Shortly afterwards, Mr Reynolds said he would go forward and asked should he seek reelection to the Dail.

Ahern says he never discouraged Reynolds from seeking the Presidency but never actually asked him to pursue the office either. Reynolds contends that he was indeed encouraged by the Fianna Fail leadership, not once, but repeatedly during the summer, to pursue his ambition to become Ireland's eighth President.

Six weeks ago, amid a welter of speculation about John Hume's intentions, Reynolds formally declared his plan to stand and drew about him a campaign team including his son, Philip, and a company of communications consultants.

At one point, about 10 days ago, they became so concerned at media reports quoting "sources close to the leadership" - which were negative in tone about a Reynolds candidacy - they wrote to the Taoiseach. They pointed out the long-term damage that was being done to the party's campaign chances and sought to have the leaks stopped.

By now it was clear the Fianna Fail leadership was intent on getting an "outside candidate". Hume had declined and attention turned to the possibility of the former EU Commissioner, Ray MacSharry. He decided, a week ago yesterday, not to allow his name to go forward either.

Attention turned to the possibility of securing majority support for Prof Mary McAleese who was virtually unknown to some of the parliamentary party, a fact demonstrated during Tuesday's vote when a junior minister turned to another and asked: "How do you spell her name?"

Meanwhile, the Reynolds campaign team was putting the finishing touches to a blueprint; earlier, it had commissioned a poll which showed him securing 45 per cent of electoral support.

The strategy was designed to take them from Wednesday last - the Fianna Fail parliamentary party meeting which sealed his fate - to polling day, October 30th. Reynolds would officially begin his nationwide canvass at Tallaght town centre on Wednesday evening; instead, he retired to dine with his family, confounded and distressed at the sensational manner of his exit from the presidential race and, effectively, from politics.

It was clear to Michael O'Kennedy last Tuesday that influential forces inside the party were positioning Mary McAleese for victory. O'Kennedy was in the Dail restaurant that day when he had an exchange with Dermot Ahern, the Social, Community and Family Affairs Minister.

O'Kennedy's political antennae had picked up the message and, according to sources, he expressed strong resentment to Ahern. His fears were confirmed when he read that day's Evening Herald to see the contest billed as "a two-horse race".

After an exchange of heated words with Ahern, O'Kennedy called his proposer and seconder to say he would not need their assistance after all. He told some colleagues he was out of the race. He left Leinster House in anger, but after discussions with some family members, agreed to allow his name to go forward. A carefully couched statement, issued on his behalf on Tuesday evening, said he would "submit" his name to the meeting.

O'Kennedy had never been asked to run; he had never been discouraged either. On the other hand, David Andrews, the Defence Minister, is understood to have undertaken to the Taoiseach that he would not run on the basis that Fianna Fail could not possibly hold Dun Laoghaire in a by-election and that his absence would have a destabilising effect on the Government.

The strategy that propelled Mary McAleese into the role of Fianna Fail candidate was ruthless, masterful, if ultimately gory. Its authors - some at the highest level in the party hierarchy - employed a muted game plan in their mission. It was devastatingly effective.

The canvass for McAleese did not exert pressure on new parliamentarians - many of whom did not realise what the leadership wanted - but was constructed on a majority among senior and junior Ministers and those TDs and senators with reservations about a Reynolds candidacy. A number of those supporting O'Kennedy were persuaded to give their vote to McAleese in the second round.

A loose cabal of senior Government Ministers launched an eleventh-hour offensive that saw pragmatism win over sentiment. However, it was only on Wednesday morning, on the way to the vote, that Reynolds learned the extent to which his backers were drifting away. Up to the eve of voting, he and his supporters reckoned - at a conservative estimate - that they had 60-something votes but, as they entered the parliamentary party meeting, Brian Cowen, the Health Minister, told him the figures were not stacking up.

A pre-planned meeting of Ministers and Ministers of State on Tuesday night at Fianna Fail headquarters in Mount Street - down the road from Leinster House - provided the forum for the final push against Reynolds. There was nothing Machiavellian about the formal meeting; it was planned ages ago to discuss policy and the like and Fianna Fail's general secretary, Pat Farrell, introduced a note of social civility with the provision of wine and supper.

After discussions on policy, the meeting broke up and Government Ministers stood around in groups, sipping drinks and contemplating the next day's vote. There was disquiet about what lay ahead, most specifically at the fact that Reynolds might win. Everyone in the media was saying he would.

Reynolds had the backing of three Ministers - Cowen, McCreevy and Andrews. A number of other Ministers - Mary O'Rourke, Dermot Ahern, Jim McDaid, John O'Donoghue and, more peripherally, Joe Walsh - were all firmly in the pro-McAleese camp.

After the meeting, which was not attended by Cowen, further networking got under way to contact members of the parliamentary party. There were three factors at stake. If, and it was a big if, it won the Presidency campaign, the party had to confront the possibility of a by-election loss which would reduce the minority Government to just 80 seats and endanger their futures.

Secondly, given the recent proximity of the Haughey era, the actual campaign around Reynolds would be so negative and deleterious to Fianna Fail that it should be avoided at all costs.

Thirdly, that Reynolds, while a recognised vote-winner, would never get the required level of transfers from other candidates. Furthermore, the Progressive Democrats would not support a Reynolds campaign.

But, one pro-Reynolds supporter said it boiled down to a much simpler essence. Albert had nothing to give them. "A very powerful and influential rump could offer power, access, influence and positions," he said.

Meanwhile, McAleese's campaign did not begin until the middle of the previous week when she announced on RTE's Liveline that she was seeking the Fianna Fail nomination. At the time, nobody took her seriously. But she had been beavering away all summer, making contacts with forceful politicians like O'Rourke and Dermot Ahern.

She contacted other Oireachtas members and one said this week he was impressed at the organised letter-writing campaign undertaken by a wide network of supporters surrounding the Queen's University law lecturer. The indecision of Mr Hume prevented her from putting her name in the ring earlier.

At the heel of the hunt, three Ministers are believed to have supported Mr Reynolds - David Andrews, Brian Cowen and Charlie McCreevy. About 11 Senators and 35 TDs were also on his side.

Famous Dail families split on the vote. For example, Mary O'Rourke clearly supported McAleese while one nephew, Conor Lenihan, favoured Reynolds and his brother, Brian, went for the third candidate, O'Kennedy, in the first ballot and McAleese thereafter.

Bertie Ahern had said he would support Reynolds and he did. He gave him his vote. He showed him his vote, holding up the ballot paper to indicate his patronage. Strangely, when he did that, Albert Reynolds is reported to have been overcome with the oddest feeling that he was about to fail in his bid.

Reynolds's votes came from what one TD terms "the damned, the dispossessed and the sentimentalists". After analysis of the vote within the party, it is now believed that at least some of these turned to McAleese in the second round.

Members of the Fianna Fail parliamentary party were a bit flattered that a woman with a CV to die for and such a hard-hitting intellect saw them as desirable cohabitees of her natural political homeland.

Oddly, Noel Dempsey, the man who led the gang of four in the anti-Haughey pitch that propelled Reynolds into the Taoiseach's office, was abroad but did not exercise his right to vote.