Taoiseach remembered for his skill as a dealmaker and for his crucial part in bringing peace to Northern Ireland.
Albert Reynolds forged a close relationship with John Major and the two presented a joint declaration that led to the Good Friday agreement
As the taoiseach (prime minister) of Ireland from 1992, Albert Reynolds, who has died aged 81 after suffering from Alzheimer's disease, is credited, along with his British counterpart John Major, with a crucial role in energising the long-drawn-out peace process in Northern Ireland. It was an issue he had shown little interest in before but, having been apprised of secret efforts to persuade the IRA and loyalists to call ceasefires and halt all violence, Reynolds forged a very close relationship with Major, and decided to take great risks to achieve the objective.
Thus he travelled north incognito to meet emissaries from the various loyalist groups and engaged face to face with representatives of every party to the conflict, notably through discussions facilitated by the peacemaker Father Alec Reid of Clonard Monastery. As a result of these efforts, Reynolds was able to stand with Major outside 10 Downing Street in December 1993 to present an agreed declaration that set out a roadmap for formal peace talks. Although it was greeted with initial suspicion by the participants, the IRA and loyalists both declared ceasefires in 1994, and its groundbreaking framework culminated in the Good Friday agreement four years later.
On his return from London, Reynolds told the Irish parliament, the Dáil: "The purpose of this joint declaration is to help remove conflicts of interest, and fundamental differences in the sense of identity, out of the arena of violence, and to place them purely in the political and democratic arena." His approach throughout had been defined by his question "Who's afraid of peace?"
However, in November 1994 Reynolds had to resign as taoiseach through the loss of support from his coalition partners over the failure to return a priest who was a serial child abuser to Northern Ireland for trial.
Reynolds had shown great flair for attracting the substantial European Union regional funds that helped fuel Ireland's Celtic Tiger boom from 1995 onwards. But his political career coincided with a period of government in the Irish Republic by politicians many of whom were afterwards found to be financially corrupt – a time of "low standards in high places" as the Dáil member George Colley put it. Charles Haughey, whom Reynolds succeeded as prime minister, had a lavish lifestyle funded not by shrewd business dealings but by sizeable donations from wealthy patrons. Other former political colleagues of Reynolds were imprisoned for corrupt dealing, and Bertie Ahern, who succeeded him as prime minister, was later driven from office after an exposé of his unorthodox financial conduct.
A long-running judicial tribunal in Dublin, set up in 1997, was the principal instrument for investigating the widespread political corruption. Although Reynolds was spared questioning in 2008 because of "significant cognitive impairment", he and Ahern were formally criticised for an "abuse of political power and government authority" by soliciting a businessman to make a substantial party donation at a time when he was seeking support for a development project.
Reynolds was born in Rooskey, Co Roscommon and, after education at Summerhill college, Sligo, was employed as a clerk with Córas Iompair Éireann, the state transport company. In the evenings, with his elder brother, Jim, he began promoting dances featuring the top Irish showbands. By the mid-1960s, they had developed a dozen well-equipped dance halls, with names such as Cloudland and Fairyland, each with a capacity of up to 3,000 people, which were full at least two nights a week.
As the business prospered, Reynolds used his new-found wealth to buy the Longford Arms hotel, a bacon-curing plant in Dublin, a local newspaper and a fish-exporting operation. But his most successful and enduring operation was a pet-food factory in Longford. In an attempt to land an own-labelling contract with a big British supermarket, Reynolds is reputed to have eaten a spoonful of the product to underline his claims of its quality.
On the back of his business success, Reynolds inevitably became involved in local politics and, from a well-nurtured power base in the Fianna Fáil party, was elected to the Dáil in 1977 for the Longford-Westmeath constituency.
After two years on the backbenches, he became one of an influential "gang of five", who supported Haughey in ousting Jack Lynch and becoming party leader and then prime minister in 1979. Reynolds was appointed minister for posts and telegraphs and made an indelible mark by driving through the replacement of the country's creaking manual telephone system with a state-of-the-art automatic network.
As one of Haughey's staunchest supporters, Reynolds found that his political career flourished; both in power and in opposition, he held key posts, including three years from 1988 as finance minister, when he reduced personal taxes. However, in 1991, as internal party discontent with Haughey grew, Reynolds offered himself to the party as an alternative. He was immediately given support by the "country and western" wing, so called because they represented rural Ireland rather than the more affluent east coast.
The coup failed, however, and Reynolds lost his ministerial status and Haughey's patronage. His exile was a short one. Within months, Haughey was forced to resign after his one-time justice minister revealed that he had been ordered by Haughey to get the police to tap the private telephones of two journalists who seemed to have an inside track on his affairs. This time, in February 1992, Reynolds was successful in the leadership contest and had his revenge for the failed coup when he relieved 12 Haughey loyalists of their ministerial posts.
Reynolds almost immediately became embroiled in the X case, in which his hardline Catholic attorney general, Harry Whelehan, had stepped in to prevent a 14-year-old girl going to Britain for an abortion. As a natural dealmaker, Reynolds tried to appease those with unyielding views on both sides of the issue and within his government, but he was unsuccessful, and lingering resentment on all sides was the outcome.
At the same time, a tribunal appointed to investigate dubious relations between the beef tycoon Larry Goodman and Haughey dragged Reynolds into the equation, when it was revealed he had provided lavish, state-sponsored, export-guarantee insurance to consignments of beef sold to Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq.
This crisis of confidence caused Reynolds's coalition deal with the Progressive Democrats to implode. There was no clear victor in the subsequent general election, and after a period of negotiations Reynolds emerged again as prime minister, this time with the support of the Labour party.
The beef tribunal report emerged soon afterwards, and Reynolds's creative attempts to spin its findings to declare himself cleared angered Labour. Its co-operation evaporated when Reynolds nominated Whelehan, still attorney general, as president of the high court, and it was revealed that Whelehan had long frustrated efforts to extradite the paedophile priest Brendan Smyth to face charges in Belfast because of the scandal it would cause for the church. The Labour party demanded that Reynolds stand down, which he did reluctantly.
Some weeks earlier, Reynolds had been at the heart of a massive diplomatic rebuff when he waited in vain to greet the Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, during a stopover at Shannon airport. Yeltsin, it was widely reported, was too drunk to leave his aircraft.
In 1997, Reynolds sought Fianna Fáil's nomination as president, but it and the presidency went to Mary McAleese. He left the Dáil in 2002.
Reynolds's retirement was dominated by a long-running libel battle with the Sunday Times, after the paper alleged he misled the Irish parliament over aspects of the child abuse affair that brought him down. A jury found for Reynolds but declared he was not entitled to damages. A judge then awarded him a penny, leaving Reynolds with a £1m bill for costs.
The matter went to appeal and ultimately to the House of Lords, which handed down a landmark decision that publishers could legitimately claim "fair and reasonable publication" as a defence in libel and defamation cases, a process now applicable in Britain and Ireland, and known to lawyers as "the Reynolds defence".
Reynolds's later years were marred by illness that caused him to withdraw entirely from public life. Major visited him in December 2013 and praised his efforts in advancing peace.
He is survived by his wife, Kathleen (nee Coen), and his two sons and five daughters.
Albert Reynolds, businessman and politician, born 3 November 1932; died 21 August 2014
This article was amended on 22 August 2014. The original stated that Albert Reynolds nominated Harry Whelehan as president of the supreme court; in fact Reynolds nominated Whelehan as president of the high court. This has been corrected.