Albert Reynolds (born 1932) became prime minister of Ireland in 1992, reflecting a new generation of Irish leaders. Entering politics after success in business, he won leadership of the Fianna Fail Party and was able to build a governing coalition with a progressivist and socially liberal Labour Party.
Albert Reynolds was born in Rooskey, County Roscommon, on November 3, 1932, and was educated at Summerhill College in Sligo. He married Kathleen Coen, and they had two sons and five daughters. He became the owner of a chain of dance halls that flourished during Ireland's "show band" craze of the 1960s. Reynolds then got into the pet food business; next he purchased a local newspaper. The president of the Longford Chamber of Commerce from 1974 through 1978 and a member of the Longford County Council from 1974 through 1979, he was elected to the Irish parliament, Dail Eireann, in June 1977. He was part of the overwhelming majority won in that election by Fianna Fail, the Eamon de Valera-founded party that dominated Irish politics after 1932, as it again returned to power after four years in opposition.
In 1979 he was one of a group within the party that brought Charles J. Haughey to the leadership and to the post of taoiseach (prime minister). Reynolds occupied two positions, minister for post and telegraph and minister for transport, in that Haughey government, which lasted until June 1981. The election of that date, which was held while Irish Republican Army (IRA) prisoners were on hunger strike in Northern Ireland, resulted in Fianna Fail narrowly losing power to a fragile coalition headed by Garret Fitz Gerald of Fine Gael. That coalition government lasted only until early the next year when another election brought Haughey and Fianna Fail back into power, but with a plurality rather than a majority of seats in Dail Eireann, making them dependent on the votes of a handful of independent members.
Reynolds became minister for industry and commerce. However, that government fell in November 1982 and a Fine Gael-Labour coalition was returned in yet another election with enough support so as to govern until 1987. While in opposition, Reynolds served as front bench spokesman first on industry and employment and, from October 1984, on energy. Haughey and Fianna Fail were returned to power in March 1987, but again without an absolute majority. Reynolds again served as minister for industry and commerce until he became minister for finance in November 1988.
In June 1989 Haughey called an election, hoping to get an absolute majority for his party. He failed and, consequently, for the first time in the history of the Fianna Fail Party, had to form a coalition government. His partners were the Progressive Democrats, a party made up of many ex-Fianna Fail members with a record of hostility toward Haughey, with a conservative economic position but a liberal social outlook.
Although he had considerable success in bringing Irish inflation and national indebtedness under control, Haughey remained plagued by allegations of scandal. In the fall of 1991 Reynolds led an unsuccessful effort within the party to replace Haughey and, naturally, then had to resign as finance minister. But a couple of months later charges about Haughey's awareness of the wire tapping of journalists a decade earlier prompted his resignation. Reynolds was then selected to replace him by the votes of 61 of the 77 Fianna Fail TDs (members of Dail Eireann), and he became taoiseach on February 11, 1992. In office he ousted many of the Haughey loyalists from the cabinet. The following June he successfully led the campaign for popular endorsement in a referendum of Ireland's signing of the Maastricht Agreement that further intensified the process of European political and economic unification.
Two matters did plague him. One was the controversy arising from an Irish Supreme Court ruling that allowed an unmarried 14-year-old girl to travel to Britain to have an abortion. The Supreme Court's logic was that the concern for the life of the mother expressed in the existing constitutional prohibition of abortion would permit the girl to travel to have the abortion, since she had threatened suicide because of her pregnancy. The other problem was increasing hostility from his coalition partners, the Progressive Democrats, especially from their leader, Desmond O'Malley. The latter had given testimony in a quasi-judical tribunal about alleged government favors for beef exporters, with the implication of responsibility on Reynolds' part, since he had been minister for industry and commerce. Reynolds went on the offensive against O'Malley, ultimately accusing him of dishonest testimony. O'Malley and colleagues thereupon resigned, provoking a national election in November 1992.
The election occurred the same day, November 25, as a referendum on a three-part amendment to the constitution that the Reynolds government had proposed to rectify confusion resulting from the court decision on abortion. Two parts, which permitted travel outside the state for abortions and the dissemination of information about the availability of abortion abroad, were approved by the voters. The other section, which continued the prohibition of abortion except where the life of the mother was endangered (for causes other than the threat of suicide), was defeated. The latter section was unsatisfactory to both opponents and advocates of the availability of abortion and left observers confused as to actual Irish opinion.
In the election Fianna Fail suffered substantial losses, while the only big gainer was the Labour Party, the former regular coalition partner of Fine Gael. Several weeks of negotiations finally resulted in a Fianna Fail-Labour coalition with a combined total of 101 votes in a Dail of 166 members. The numerical strength of the coalition suggested endurance; however, there remained potential internal disagreements between business-oriented, socially-conservative, and nationalist-populist Fianna Fail and progressivist, socially-liberal Labour.
Reynolds' government was noteworthy for its participation in a since-suspended conference with the British Government and the rival constitutional parties of Northern Ireland on the question of a political restructuring of that province. Later, on December 15, 1993, Reynolds issued jointly with British Prime Minister John Major an appeal to the men of violence in Northern Ireland to lay down their weapons and enter negotiations for a settlement in which the ultimate determiners of Irish unity would be the people of Ireland. Both premiers agreed, however, that such unification would be dependent on majority consent in both the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland.
Reynolds continued efforts to depopularize the IRA's armed struggle for unification and to expand the peace dialog with the Major government. Reynolds' government fell during the delicate negotiations surrounding the Clinton peace initiative brokered by Special Advisor to the President and Secretary of State for economic initatives in Ireland, George Mitchell. The dark comic events resulting in Reynolds' ouster were precipated by delays in the extradition of a priest to Northern Ireland on charges of child sexual abuse. A series of allegations emerged about Reynolds-appointed President of the High Court, Harry Whelehan, whom Reynolds had elevated to that post from Attorney-General in the midst of the affair. The charges implicated Whelehan, then serving as Attorney-General, in delaying the extradition to spare Reynolds the political embarrassment and risk likely to accompany compliance with the Northern Irish request.
Reynolds government fell shortly thereafter. One important effect of his demise was a delay in the peace process. In the months after Reynolds' fall, rumors surfaced in Dublin and Washington, based on likely CIA and FBI sources, that the entire affair had been orchestrated by British intelligence as a test to bring down Reynolds who was perceived as having too effective influence over Major. The priest in question was revealed to have paid four documented visits to the North with the the knowledge of authorities, yet no effort had been made to apprehend him.
In 1995, Reynolds was appointed to membership on the Board of Governors of the European Investment Bank and Governor for Ireland of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
Further Reading on Albert Reynolds
There is no biography of Reynolds. The best reporting would be in internationally circulating weeklies such as the Economist and the New Statesman and Society. Good introductions to modern Irish political history included J.J. Lee, Ireland: 1912-1985 (1989), Terence Brown, Ireland: A Social and Cultural History, 1922 to the Present (1985), Padraig O'Malley, The Uncivil Wars: Ireland Today (1983), and Tim Pat Coogan, The Troubles (1996).