Albert Reynolds, the accidental politician, speaks… August 30, 2009Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, Northern Ireland.
Feck me, it really is history week. Truth is I’ve always had a sneakin’ regard for Albert Reynolds. He was far from the worst Taoiseach to grace that office, the Fianna Fáil/Labour coalition was in many respects a reforming one and some of the groundwork they laid in terms of rights – in fairness pushed by Labour, but equally in fairness taken up by some in FF – softened up the terrain for the divorce referendum under their successor. The approach to the North was positive and useful and Reynolds was always sharper than his detractors gave him credit. That much of the problem, according to the detractors was that he came from outside the pale didn’t diminish him in my eyes in the slightest. Now, before I get all dewy eyed, the man was no progressive, or at least not as I would regard one. But for all that… he did okay.
So, and as serialised in the Sunday Independent today, his autobiography lands in our bookshops imminently. Fair dues then to the Mail (words you won’t always hear me say), for getting the jump on them yesterday with an interview with the man.
Now, it’s painful to read that Cowen was his protege.
But, you’ll find an interesting read in that interview (conducted by Jason O’Toole) in the Mail this weekend which indicates just how 1968 and 1969 influenced others beyond Republicanism and Northern Nationalism…
Mr Reynolds’ political career began almost by chance – his interest in running for the Dail stemmed from his fascinating with watching the Arms Trial unfold.
“I had no great interest in becoming a member of the party,” he told me.
In fact, prior to being elected to the Dail for the first time in 1977, he’d focused all his energies on building up a ballroom empire with his brother Jim, before branching out into the food produce trade.
‘I had a factory in the Coombe and I used to come up and down every day from Longford. I’d come up early in the morning and we killed about 700 pigs a week – and the pigs would be all killed by half 10 or 11. The boys would come in early and get home early. And I was quite happy with that,’ he recalled.
This was back in 1970, during the infamous Arms Trial. Mr Reynolds, then aged 38, told me that when the staff clocked off from work in the bacon factory, he would go down to the Four Courts to observe the sensational trial.
‘I listened to every day of the Beef Tribunal… No, not the Beef Tribunal! I was thinking about my own thing! The Arms Trial,” he said, pausing to laugh at his Freudian slip, before continuing with his recollection of the infamous Arms Trial.
And consider this…
‘I was on the – if I wasn’t, I was on it very shortly afterwards – the executive of the party because the old man died and I came in to it. I wanted to see all the evidence to make up my own mind. Not what you read in the papers. I wanted to listen to it all through – and so I did. But anyway, I made up my own mind. It was hard to know where the real story was. It was thrown out anyway and that was it.’
After Charlie Haughey and Neil Blaney were sensationally acquitted of attempting to illegally import guns for the IRA, Mr Reynolds dined with one of Mr Blaney’s legal team, Liam Hamilton, who went on to become a Supreme Court Judge and then Chief Justice.
‘That night when it finished, I remember Liam Hamilton was going up to have a meal and I went with him. There was a big party out in Kinsealy, but I didn’t go to it. He didn’t go to it either. Even though he was Blaney’s man, as far as I remember. There was different people defending Charlie Haughey, but I didn’t know them, but I knew Blaney’s Anyway, I went up and I said to him, “What do you make of it now?”
‘And he says, “I’m no wiser about what Blaney’s part was in it than I was the first day”. “Because,” he says, “all he said was, ‘You go on and defend me’. But I have to hear your story and I have to sit down… ‘You don’t need anything,’ he says. “I’m not guilty. I’m guilty of nothing. You don’t need anything,’ he says, ‘Go in and get me out. And that’s it. There’s no evidence there against me’.”’
‘And I sat down with Liam Hamilton in a restaurant up on Leeson Street. We talked about it and it was him that told me that. “That’s the end of that now,” he said. “But I’m no wiser having gone through the whole lot,” he says. “You’re asking me to tell you, I could be asking you to tell me. I’m no wiser. I can’t tell you anymore than you know yourself”. That was that. The thing was over. Haughey came back – he was put out of the party and he came back into the party.’
Mr Reynolds won a seat in the Dail on his first attempt in the General Election 1977. He managed to hold onto his seat in each subsequent election until his retirement in 2002.
Or how about the Peace Process and the collapse of the first (I jest – sort of) Fianna Fáil/Labour Party Coalition?
By his own admission, Mr Reynolds was a ‘businessman, a risk taker’. He was, according to John Major in a publicity blurb for the impending autobiography, a ‘trader’ and a ‘dealer’ who was a ‘bottom-line man’.
It was this very business acumen that Reynolds used in his unorthodox but highly successful negotiations when brokering the first IRA ceasefire and when proceeding over the Downing Street negotiations with his British counterpart. It was, he told me, nothing more than ‘straight dealing’.
A few months after his crowning achievement of brokering the Downing Street Declaration, Mr Reynolds was forced to resign as Taoiseach after he made the erroneous decision to appoint Attorney General Harry Whelehan as President of the High Court.
Unfortunately, the appointment backfired when Mr Spring, the then Tanaiste, dramatically pulled Labour out of the coalition after it was revealed that Mr Whelehan had mishandled an attempt to extradite a paedophile priest, Fr. Brendan Smyth. In his resignation speech in the Dail, Mr Reynolds said: ‘Give it as it was; tell it as it is, that is me.’
In his memoir about his time working as Mr Reynolds’ spin-doctor, Sean Duignan describes the atmosphere of the day he resigned as Taoiseach as almost akin to that of an Irish wake. ‘Tea and sympathy were dispensed in the Taoiseach’s dining room, which took on the appearance of an executive funeral parlour as Kathleen Reynolds and her daughters, Cathy, Leone, Emer and Andrea, patiently listened to the condolences of a long line of friends of the famiglia,’ Duigan recalls in his book, ‘One Spin on the Merry-Go-Round’.
Did it feel like a wake? I asked Mr Reynolds.
‘Ah, no,’ he insisted.
Then there is the infamous incident when Reynolds sought the Presidency…
After resigning as Taoiseach, Mr Reynolds reluctantly stayed on as a backbencer TD until he retired from public life in 2002. But it wasn’t meant to end that way – Mr Reynolds had envisaged a swansong as President, but he failed to obtain the Fianna Fail nomination for the 1997 presidential election.
It was an open secret that Mr Ahern had promised to support Mr Reynolds presidential candidacy as far as back in January 1997 when the two men met for lunch in the Berkeley Court Hotel, Dublin. At the informal lunch, Reynolds revealed to Ahern his plan to step down at the upcoming general election because he didn’t warm to the idea of spending his twilight years as a backbencer. This was akin to Ahern’s similar statement, after his dramatic resignation as Taoiseach when he announced that he wouldn’t run in the 2012 general election.
But instead of supporting Reynolds in his decision, Ahern urged his former boss to contest the next general election because he feared that without Reynolds Fianna Fáil could lose a valuable seat in the Longford-Roscommon constituency. Reynolds told me that he felt that Fianna Fáil would never lose the seat, but he reluctantly agreed to mull over Mr Ahern’s request.
They then had a further meeting at the McGrattan’s Restaurant, near the Government Buildings, at which Ahern offered to make Reynolds a special ‘peace envoy’ to Northern Ireland. And Mr Ahern also to support his candidacy for presidency – on the condition that he run in the general election.
‘And I’ll also to support your presidential candidacy – on the condition that you run in the general election,’ Mr Ahern told Mr Reynolds.
This seemed like a great deal…
Mr Reynolds was delighted with the deal on offer from AMr hern. Mr Reynolds felt the while it would be a great honour to be president, it would be an even greater honour to be a peace envoy for Northern Ireland. It would be recognition of his significant contribution to bringing peace to Northern Ireland – as it was Mr Reynolds who had undertaken the arduous
task of getting all the different factions to the negotiation table in
the first place.
‘You’ve got yourself a deal,’ Mr Reynolds replied.
He then shook hands with his former cabinet colleague to signal an agreement. As far as Mr Reynolds was concerned it was a done deal.
At the launch of Fianna Fáil’s election campaign that May, Mr Ahern surprised many of his party colleagues by publicly referring to the peace envoy role for Mr Reynolds. The former Taoiseach took this as a clear sign that their deal would be honoured if he retained his Dáil seat, which he duly did.
He came from the old school of never going back on your word; with him shaking hands was as a good as an oath, and he never once thought that even Mr Ahern – who had been described by his own former mentor, the disgraced former Taoiseach Charlie Haughey as the “most cunning of them
all” – would reengage on their deal.
Mr Reynolds was confident about becoming president, as the opinion polls showed that he would enjoy almost 50 percent of the votes, which was an impressively strong position. But it appeared that the Reynolds camp were unaware that the vast majority of cabinet minister had agreed privately to
support Mrs McAleese’s candidacy. They were confident Reynolds had secured 70 out of the 114 votes.
However, Mr Reynolds told me he was made aware, by internal sources, of the changing situation the night before the nomination. He also realised something was amiss when he arrived for the candidacy vote and discovered that he had to give pre-vote speech – even though he had been reassured by
Mr Ahern earlier that morning that his candidacy was merely a formality and that he wouldn’t have to prepare a speech.
He had been surprised to discover the young Northern Ireland solicitor, McAleese, who was a political novice, was putting her hat in the ring. Ironically, Mary McAleese was persuaded to run for the presidency by another Longford man, Harry Casey, who was a teacher at St Patrick’s Academy in Navan.
Mrs McAleese then went and met with several of the ministers to canvas their support, with Mary O’Rourke promising to lobby Ahern on her behalf.
Many of the senior figures she met readily agreed to support her because they still held grudges against Mr Reynolds for dramatically sacking them from the Cabinet in 1992 when he took over the Taoiseach’s office.
Reynolds’ heart sank even further when he listened to her well-prepared speech. For his part, he had made a rambling and uninspired speech, which some quarters of Fianna Fáil attempted to suggest was the reason behind the pendulum’s sudden swing towards the unknown Mrs McAleese, who was not even a member of the party. Technically, Reynolds’ could have objected to her candidacy – but he was unaware of this fact until a few years later.
His heart must have been going through the floor when he realised…
Out of the 15 cabinet members, only Charlie McCreevy and David Andrews, along with Taoiseach Brian Cowen, supported him. Mr Reynolds was surprised that the Minister for Environment Noel Dempsey, who was abroad, had decided not to vote. Mr Reynolds had perceived Mr Dempsey as one of his protégés, after given him his first big political break by bringing him into his
Mr Dempsey later said he envisaged a Mr Reynolds’ presidential campaign as ‘weeks of wall-to-wall Beef Tribunal re-runs’. However, it should be remembered that Mr Reynolds had already been vindicated by the tribunal’s findings.
During the voting procedure, Mr Reynolds started to become more and more annoyed as he observed the public humiliation that was being inflicted upon him. After he’d marked his ballot paper, Mr Ahern approached Reynolds and displayed his card as proof that he had voted for the former Taoiseach.
It’s a great insight into a time that has already receded into, well not quite distant political history, but certainly a time that seems unimaginably different to the contemporary era. And yet now the histories of this, written by the participants, are being issues piecemeal. As O’Toole notes… and this is true for more than Reynolds…
He was, Mr Reynolds acknowledged, disappointed [by the events around the Presidential nomination] – but I got the distinct impression that his disillusionment was derived from the fact that many of his former cabinet failed to support him.
And more particularly by how he felt Mr Ahern had let him down – as it was the ‘peace envoy’ position he desired the most because of his passion about bringing peace to Northern Ireland.
Doubtless, he will use his forthcoming autobiography to wreak revenge.
More than him at that.