Unfortunately the publication ultimately proves a disappointment due to the nature of its analysis. Perhaps because of the author’s family background or his relationship with the subject, the story that emerges is one of a successful, self-made business man and politician. We read of Reynolds rise from modest beginnings to become incredibly wealthy and how he entered politics with few mentors or insider connections yet gained the highest office in the land. More than that, he apparently delivered an IRA ceasefire and was in the author’s words, a risk taker for peace.
There are many who would agree with this account of the former Taoiseach’s career. There is, after all, no question that starting with little he became incredibly wealthy and unlike his predecessor, Charles Haughey, Reynolds was at least able to offer a credible account for his prosperity. Moreover, not only had he few early party mentors but was actually something of an outsider in what was often an incestuous political cabal and still rose to lead a Fianna Fail government. Along with this and his crowning achievement of helping kick-start the ‘Peace Process’, he would appear to be a shoo-in for Ireland’s pantheon.
Yet all too often with establishment compliant narratives, there is as much spin as substance in this account.
As with so many wealthy entrepreneurs promoting a rags to riches tale, there is more than a little dissembling involved in relation to Albert’s contribution to wealth creation. His early start on the road to a bulging bank account was as a facilitator in the rural show-band era. He was not a musical practitioner like the legends of the industry, people such as Joe Dolan, Dicky Rock or Twink. In spite of being filmed wearing a cowboy hat and trying to croon like Jim Reeves, he merely managed country dance halls. Not so much the man in the ring as the shrewd guy arranging the bouts. Hardly a surprise perhaps that his attitude to his employees was sometimes less than generous.There was the time, for example, when his very profitable C&D company claimed inability to pay as it tried to evade paying an incremental wage increase agreed overall at a national level.
It was too, during this period that Reynolds demonstrated a side of his character that was to become a hallmark of his career both in business and politics; an almost savage streak of ruthlessness. He had started out working with his brother Jim in the early years of his involvement in the dance hall business. Together they built the business that was to provide the basis of his fortune but after a disagreement he sued Jim, claiming a substantial sum in the process.
In later years he was involved in a number of legal disputes with people who had not only helped him build the very profitable C& D pet food enterprise but had once been close friends. He carried this predilection into his political life. Although few may now shed a tear for his one time patron Charlie Haughey, it was Albert who wielded the knife when the Grand Duke of Kinsealy was defenestrated.
It was, however, his role in facilitating the 1994 IRA ceasefire that the author bases his case for Reynolds’ place among the greats of Irish history. It is at this point that the book becomes weakest in its analysis as the author serves up the usual type of anodyne and tendentious interpretation of the northern conflict. A convention that has served the self-serving agenda of the southern Irish establishment for over half a century as its in-house media spoke of; violence, sectarianism, innocent victims with scant reference to origin or context.
In the author’s opinion, having for years displayed little or no interest in the North, Albert Reynolds was seemingly motivated towards seeking an end to this situation by two events in particular. These were the 1975 Miami Show-band killings and the Enniskillen Remembrance Day killings in 1987. For someone who, according to the book, represented a constituency close to the border (a new take on Longford’s location) this seems to be a very limited range and interestingly one without mention of death at the hands of the British Army and state.
This one-dimensional interpretation of a complex, century old situation treated the conflict as if it were an epidemic that could be cured by something called peace. Accordingly therefore and by this telling Reynolds was the guy who delivered on the ceasefire and thus peace.
The reality is different. Reynolds certainly helped hold the door open for an end to the IRA’s armed campaign. Yet that ending would have happened with or without Albert Reynolds. The IRA leadership was eager to find an accommodation with the British government and London was willing to oblige. This had to be done discretely and with careful orchestration but realpolitik at the time dictated that it was going to happen one way or another.
At the end of the day Albert Reynolds was a 26-County Fianna Fail Taoiseach who served his class first and foremost. He happened to be in office at a time that allowed him to stroll on stage and appear to take the part of a significant player. To a critical eye, Reynolds’ questionable legacy is evident from Conor Lenihan’s book and for that reason it is a publication worth reading but as with a second hand car, it is very much a question of caveat emptor.
Conor Lenihan, 2021, Albert Reynolds: Risktaker for Peace. Dublin: Merrion Press. ISBN-13:978-1785374050
Tommy McKearney is a left wing and trade union activist.
He is author of The Provisional IRA: From Insurrection to Parliament.
Follow on Twitter @Tommymckearney