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Albert Reynolds, Irish prime minister who helped bring peace to Northern Ireland, dies at 81

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DUBLIN - Albert Reynolds, the risk-taking Irish prime minister who played a key role in delivering peace to Northern Ireland but struggled to keep his own governments intact, died Thursday after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease. He was 81.

His eldest son, Philip, said he died around 3 a.m. at his Dublin home, where in recent years he required 24-hour care. The government ordered flags to fly at half-mast until Reynolds' state funeral Monday.

Reynolds, a savvy businessman from rural County Roscommon who made millions running rural dance halls and a pet food company before his election to parliament in 1977, led two feud-prone coalition governments from 1992 to 1994.

During his turbulent tenure, Reynolds made peace in neighbouring Northern Ireland his top priority. With British Prime Minister John Major at his side, he unveiled the Downing Street Declaration, a 1993 blueprint for peace in the predominantly British Protestant territory. To drive it forward, he successfully pressed the outlawed Irish Republican Army to call a 1994 cease-fire.

"Everyone told me: You can't talk to the IRA. I figured it was well past time to bend some rules for the cause of peace," Reynolds told The Associated Press in a 1994 interview, when he was being touted as a Nobel Peace Prize candidate.

Yet within months of that peacemaking triumph, a stunned Reynolds was forced to quit as leader of Ireland's centrist Fianna Fail party after his coalition partners in the left-wing Labour Party withdrew from the government in protest over his dismissive management style.

His longtime press secretary, Sean Duignan, described Reynolds as "a born gambler — at the track, in business and politics."

That appetite for walking a political tightrope worked wonders in Northern Ireland, where a quarter-century of conflict had left more than 3,500 dead. Reynolds built alliances with U.S. President Bill Clinton and Irish-American leaders, who wanted to coax the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party in from the political cold. Pushing from one direction, Reynolds demanded that Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams deliver an open-ended IRA truce; from the other, he cajoled a skeptical, reluctant Major toward direct contact with Sinn Fein.

"We've been able to have the fiercest of rows without leaving scars. I understood Albert's difficulties and he understood mine," recalled Major, who described his Irish counterpart as "a lovable man."

Clinton said Reynolds' work alongside Major provided the bedrock for Northern Ireland's eventual 1998 peace accord "and our world owes him a profound debt of gratitude."

Many analysts have argued that Northern Ireland peacemaking would have progressed more quickly had Reynolds stayed in power. But his daredevil streak proved unworkable in a parliament where his long-dominant Fianna Fail — Gaelic for "Soldiers of Destiny" — no longer commanded a majority on its own.

Even before becoming prime minister, Reynolds was accused of recklessness. In the late 1980s, while running Ireland's commerce department, he concocted a state insurance scheme for the country's top beef baron to export cattle to Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Taxpayers ultimately paid the exporter around 225 million euros ($300 million) in losses when Iraq defaulted.

Reynolds' first coalition government collapsed in 1992 during a state investigation into the ethics of that deal and wider corrupt practices in Ireland's beef exports. His government partner, the Progressive Democrats, demanded the probe and soon withdrew from government as Reynolds denied wrongdoing.

His second government also fell apart quickly as he repeatedly took decisions without consulting his new junior partner, Labour. The final straw came when he ignored Labour's objections to the promotion of his attorney general, a Catholic conservative accused of suppressing a Northern Ireland extradition warrant for a pedophile priest.

Some of Thursday's warmest tributes to Reynolds came from business leaders, who conjectured that his decisive style would have been ideal to oversee Ireland's emerging Celtic Tiger economy, rather than his Fianna Fail successor, Bertie Ahern. That decade-long boom ended in a 2008 burst property bubble, crippling bank rescues and Ireland teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

Reynolds "wasn't perhaps the greatest politician in the world. He managed to blow up two coalitions in a relatively short period of time," said Michael O'Leary, chief executive of Ireland's budget airline Ryanair.

"But if you ask Irish people now if you could have visionary, dynamic and bold leadership like Albert Reynolds, or the 10 years of dither, fudge and buying off of various stakeholders that came after him under Bertie, I think everybody would go back and have Albert in a flash'" he said.

The government said the public would be invited to pay their final respects to Reynolds when his open coffin is put on display Saturday at the Mansion House, the Dublin mayor's official residence. His state funeral was scheduled for midday Monday.

Reynolds is survived by his wife, Kathleen, and seven children.

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