Belfast Telegraph

Friday 24 October 2014

Straight talker laid path for peace

A portrait of former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Donnybrook, Dublin, prior to his funeral service Maxwells/PA Wire
A portrait of former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Donnybrook, Dublin, prior to his funeral service Maxwells/PA Wire
Former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds has died aged 81
Former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds has died aged 81
Former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds has died aged 81
Former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds has died aged 81

Albert Reynolds was a straight-talking, risk-taking businessman who worked to the top of the Irish government and became one of the most influential leaders in the country's history.

Proving that "nobody should be afraid of peace", a fearless Mr Reynolds made every moment of his two years as taoiseach count and forged an agreement that would have lasting effects on Ireland and the UK.

He bravely forged allegiances with unlikely figures and used his direct business know-how to help build the foundations that brought peace to a divided nation.

But before he became one of the main architects of the historic Downing Street Declaration of 1993, Mr Reynolds built an empire with nothing but sheer determination and resourcefulness.

Born in 1932, he grew up in the small village of Roosky in Co Roscommon.

Never one to let an opportunity pass, the gutsy risk-taker abandoned a sensible job for the state to capitalise on the big craze of the 1950s and swinging 60s, and bought into the dance hall scene.

He and his brother Jim built up an empire. Eventually, owing to his inherent nose for business, Mr Reynolds invested wisely in what was to become a major multimillion-pound company, setting him up for a hard-earned life of success.

But not content with a life at the helm of a major organisation such as C&D Foods, the tenacious entrepreneur embarked on yet another career. One in which he could put his can-do attitude, straight talking and diplomacy skills to good use - politics.

He was first elected to Dail Eireann for the Longford/Westmeath constituency in 1977 for Fianna Fail and quickly moved up the ranks and was appointed a government minister just two years later.

It was as minister for posts and telegraphs where he helped revolutionise Ireland's fledgling telecommunications system and transformed it into one of the best in Europe.

Later, as minister for finance from 1988 to 1991, he reduced all personal tax rates for the first time in 20 years.

But it was after he was finally elected Ireland's eighth taoiseach in 1992 that Mr Reynolds really began to make a difference.

He worked tirelessly with then-prime minister John Major, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams and then-SDLP leader John Hume to try to deliver stability to the north.

The Downing Street Declaration, which Mr Reynolds co-signed with Mr Major on December 15, 1993, paved the way for an IRA ceasefire in 1994, which in turn led loyalist paramilitaries to declare an end to terrorism, and laid the foundations for the eventual signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Mr Adams recently claimed that Mr Reynolds brought a new dynamic to negotiations about peace that his predecessor Charlie Haughey never could or would.

He branded him the "best taoisigh to deal with the north" and praised his "directness" in addressing the potential for progress.

"Albert Reynolds was the taoiseach who welcomed John Hume and me into Government Buildings on September 6, 1994," Mr Adams has said.

"His wife Kathleen and their family also welcomed me into their home and we enjoyed copious cups of tea during the ups and downs of that time.

"His was a relatively short term as taoiseach but Mr Reynolds ended exclusions, formal censorship and brought the Irish government in from the cold."

But his successes with the peace process and Anglo-Irish relations were not enough to maintain stability in Ireland's Dail parliament and, following a dispute with Fianna Fail's then coalition partner Labour, Mr Reynolds resigned as leader of the party and as taoiseach in late 1994.

He later became embroiled in another battle - an infamous court fight against the Sunday Times.

In what was to become a landmark defamation case, the former taoiseach objected to a 1994 article claiming he had misled the Irish parliament.

The story in question had the headline "Goodbye Gombeen Man", which unfairly suggested he was a wheeler dealer.

After a complicated 24-day trial, Mr Reynolds won a symbolic one penny in compensation.

His case set a precedent and is now referred to in British libel law as the "Reynolds defence".

Media that plead a similar defence argue they can print untrue and defamatory information if they can prove it is in the public interest.

In 1997, Mr Reynolds suffered another political defeat in an internal Fianna Fail election to determine the party's presidential candidate.

He was beaten by Belfast-born academic Mary McAleese, who went on to win the presidency and served as head of state for two terms.

After 25 years as a TD in the Dail, Mr Reynolds later retired from politics in 2002.

A self-confessed family man, husband to Kathleen and father to seven children, the once busy businessman-turned-politician enjoyed retirement for a number of years.

But his health became poor and in 2008 he was deemed medically unfit to give evidence at the Mahon Tribunal as it investigated years of planning corruption at Dublin City Council.

In December 2013, he was conspicuous by his absence at the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Downing Street Declaration - the agreement that many considered his crowning achievement. His wife, who shunned media and public events during her husband's glittering career, stood in for him.

That week, his son Philip revealed that Mr Reynolds was in the very last stages of Alzheimer's disease and in need of 24-hour care.

At the end, he was unable to have conversations with people.

Many have described it as a tragedy that a man so intelligent, eloquent and strong-willed could be affected in such a way.

But his triumphs and achievements will be regarded in history as among some of the nation's most significant.

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