Former Irish taoiseach at the heart of peace process

Former Irish taoiseach at the heart of peace process

Born: November 3, 1932 Died: August 21, 2014

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ALBERT REYNOLDS, who has died aged 81, spent only a short time in office as leader of the Republic of Ireland, but used that time to historic effect, playing a pivotal role in the peace process.

Although he served as minister for finance, and industry minister, he was also variously a businessman and showband promoter.

But he will undoubtedly be best remembered for laying a foundation for lasting peace.

Born in Rooskey in Co Roscommon, Mr Reynolds attended Summerhill College in Co Sligo and initially worked for the public transport body CIÉ.

Later he began to work for himself during which time he was involved in businesses as varied as dance halls, bacon-curing, fish exports and pet food.

He was first elected to the Irish parliament in 1977 at the age of 45 when he stood successfully for Fianna Fáil in the constituency of Longford Westmeath.

He worked in the finance, industry and transport departments before ­falling foul of the then taoiseach Charles Haughey, who sacked him in 1991 for supporting a motion of no confidence in the party leader, which failed.

However he eventually succeeded Mr Haughey as both taoiseach and party leader, in 1992.

He led the centre-right republican group in two successive coalition governments and pushed for talks involving Sinn Fein, forcing others, notably then prime minister John Major, to follow.

Many thought his goals over optimistic, but he famously asked "Who is afraid of peace?"

In 1993 the Downing Street D­eclaration - a joint commitment by Major and Reynolds - stated the right of the people of Ireland to self determination and affirmed the principle that Northern Ireland could only be transferred to the Republic of Ireland from the UK if the majority of its population was in favour of the move.

Meanwhile it confirmed that the people of Ireland were the only ones who had the right to settle the issues between the two countries and could only do so by mutual consent.

One of the most symbolic gestures during Mr Reynolds' short time as taoiseach was a public handshake he instigated between Gerry Adams and former SDLP leader John Hume following talks in Dublin in 1994.

Bertie Ahern, who succeeded Mr Reynolds as Fianna Fáil leader and taoiseach in 1994, said his role had been critical, while Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness told BBC Radio Ulster yesterday: "Albert was a peacemaker.

"He was someone who understood the North and the nationalist republican community but, just as importantly, he understood the loyalist unionist community and had contacts in both."

The Downing Street Declaration was widely seen as crucial to securing a ceasefire agreement in 1994 with both loyalists and the IRA laying down their arms.

However, his time in office was blighted by political scandals and controversies, including the X case, which caused deep divisions in Irish society, when a rape victim was initially prevented from travelling to seek an abortion.

He appeared compromised by a connection with beef industry mogul Larry Goodman at a time when malpractice in the industry was being investigated by the Beef Tribunal and most damagingly, mishandled the case of extradition of paedophile priest Brendan Smyth.

It was this last crisis that brought his tenure to an end in 1994.

He delayed acting on the request from authorities in Northern Ireland so that they could prosecute the serial child abuser.

On leaving office, Mr Reynolds put into words the frustration of many leaders who discover that all political careers end in failure.

"It's amazing," he commented. "You cross the big hurdles and when you get to the small ones, you get tripped up."

His legacy however is undoubtedly the progress he achieved in the long-drawn out peace process in Northern Ireland and his biggest achievement the risks he took to secure it.

He was tangentially tainted by the widespread political corruption which a judicial tribunal was set up to investigate in Dublin in 1997.

However he was spared questioning by the tribunal due to his poor health in 2008, and merely criticised, along with his successor Bertie Ahern, for "abuse of political power and government authority" for soliciting party donations in return for offering support for a business development.

Also in 1997, Reynolds campaigned to win Fianna Fáil's nomination as president, but it went instead to Mary McAleese.

He left the Dáil in 2002, and disappeared from public life, largely due to ill health. He died after suffering from Alzheimer's Disease for several years.

Mr Reynolds is survived by his wife Kathleen, two sons and five daughters.