The cricket-loving ex-con paid €103,000 a year by taxpayers
An able man with a dark past, Ray Burke, his father Paddy from Mayo, was a male nurse before Politics in Portrane Hospital,what a Journey?
Tue, Jan 25, 2005, 00:00
Burke’s life and times: Bully, fixer, liar, cheat, crook, and now prisoner – Ray Burke’s fall from grace is finally complete, a full 30 years since suspicions were first aired about his activities,
It was October 1997 when one last scandal in a career marked by scandal brought his career to a premature end at the age of 54. Bertie Ahern told the Dáil that “an honourable man” had been “hounded” from office, but within days the Fianna Fáil image-makers were busy airbrushing the North Dublin poll-topper out of history.
So successful have they been that one young passer-by was heard to ask “Ray who?” on the last occasion Burke appeared on our television screens.
Yet Burke was a towering presence in Fianna Fáil for three decades, a bruiser who demanded respect through the power he wielded. He exerted absolute control over Dublin County Council in the 1970s and early 1980s – the halcyon days of land rezoning – even when he had left the local authority for the higher calling of cabinet office. Being on the defensive from the start of his political career led him to develop a savage but effective debating style, and the party unleashed him regularly as a political Rottweiler for media interviews.
The shame about Ray was that he was an able man, too, even if those he surrounded himself with made him seem cleverer than he was. Though never taoiseach material, not least because of his dark past, he held most of the cabinet portfolios that matter – foreign affairs, justice, communications, energy, industry and commerce, environment. He played an important role in the Northern peace process, introduced important reforms in the areas of family law, rape and homosexuality, and worked hard in all of the positions he held.
Through all the years of controversy, though, the real Ray remained hidden. Vainglorious and arrogant he certainly was, but he betrayed few personal emotions in public. He could be charming and witty when he chose to, even if the threat of verbal violence always loomed.
His entire career was devoted to politics and the pursuit of power: “My life was seamless. I was a politician from the time I got up in the morning until I went to bed at night,” he told the planning tribunal. Ironic, then, that this calling left him with so few friends in Leinster House, something that was painfully evident after he resigned.
For all his energy, it was hard to tie down his political beliefs, beyond the naked goal of personal advancement. These veered from one side of the Fianna Fáil leadership struggle to another, from conservatism to liberalism, and from republicanism to soft nationalism, depending on circumstances and the fashions of the day. He was for nuclear power in the 1970s; against Sellafield in the 1980s.
If Ray Burke’s loyalties lay anywhere, they were to be found at home, with his wife Ann and daughters; buying drinks for his cronies in Swords; and with the “Mayo mafia” he inherited from his father Paddy Burke, himself a backbench TD known as “The Bishop” for his diligent attendance at constituents’ funerals.
Something else Ray Burke had his father to thank for was the site for Briargate, his former house in Swords. One of the oldest rumours about the family told how Paddy Burke acquired the land from an inmate of Portrane mental hospital, where he worked as a nurse until the mid-1950s.
His son angrily denounced the allegation as a “complete and utter lie”. He told the Dáil in 1997 that he bought the site and a house on it in a “normal commercial transaction”.
The rumour might have been somewhat garbled, but Burke was being economical with the truth with his fellow TDs. As the planning tribunal later established, the land had indeed been owned by a psychiatric patient and ward of court. A building company part-owned by Tom Brennan, Burke’s crony and financial backer, bought the land and built a house on it for Burke. No money changed hands and the conveyancing solicitor was told to “bury or lose” the file on the transaction. It was hardly a “normal commercial transaction”.
Burke sold this particular fruit of corruption in 2000 for over € 4 million.
Brennan and his business partner, Joe McGowan, also figured in the first public airing of Burke’s dirty laundry in 1974. The Sunday Independent discovered a £15,000 payment (almost €300,000 in today’s money) to Burke by a company owned by the two builders. The builders owned land near Dublin airport which had been rezoned thanks to the efforts of both Burkes on Dublin County Council.
Ray Burke, who was one of seven estate agents then sitting on the council, claimed at the time he couldn’t comment on his commercial interests. The builders said the money was commission due to Burke for selling houses. The accountant said it was a typing error. The offending document in the companies’ office was destroyed. The journalist who wrote the story emigrated. The controversy went away.
Brennan and McGowan stayed, however, and redoubled their generosity. Between 1975 and 1982, they paid Burke £1,000 a month, said to be his commission for selling houses. The fact that he was made a junior minister in 1979, and a minister in 1980, didn’t stop the estate agent’s fees rolling in.
That was only the start of it. At the tribunal, the two builders spun colourful stories about their heroic “fundraising” for Burke at social events at Ascot and Cheltenham: “On occasion, the drink was flowing like a river,” McGowan waxed.
Even by their own account, they raised about £150,000 for “Mr Burke and Fianna Fáil” between 1972 and 1984 – although Fianna Fáil never saw any of the money. The money was real alright, but the horsey stories were just a cod.
Burke used the money to build a formidable election machine in north Dublin, where he topped the poll in 12 elections. While his henchmen looked after constituency business, the ambitious new minister was left free to buy drinks and kiss babies.
He appointed his constituency manager and the architect of his house to An Bord Pleanála and boasted how he was going to get “those arrogant fuckers” in RTÉ.
Gardaí investigating allegations of planning corruption came knocking, but he brushed them off. “Did ye hear,” he boasted to the political correspondents in Leinster House shortly after, “I’m the most interviewed deputy in the House.”
“That’s great, Ray,” said a journalist. “Yeah, by the fuckin’ guards,” Burke retorted.
Stories abound about his quick temper. When he was minister for environment during the Dublin West by-election in 1982, he arranged for the planting of young trees in a new housing estate. After Fianna Fáil lost the vote, he ordered the local authority to dig them up again to show what he thought of the voters’ unfaithfulness.
Burke’s career took a dive in the 1980s when Fianna Fáil lost power, so he redirected his attention to the council. As chairman from 1985-87, he ran the council with an iron fist, with councillor Pat Dunne, now deceased, whipping party colleagues into line on a series of controversial rezoning motions.
One day in 1986, Jim Geraghty, a Fianna Fáil councillor from Balbriggan, was in Burke’s office discussing a planning matter when a well-dressed man came into the office and deposited a sports bag on the table. Burke dismissed Geraghty, who walked down the corridor.
However, Geraghty realised he had forgotten his briefcase and returned to Burke’s office to retrieve it. On entering, he saw the bag was open. It was full of money, probably in £20 notes, according to Geraghty. He heard the unidentified man refer to a figure of “60”, which Geraghty understood to mean £60,000. Burke claimed the money was a development levy he was handling.
By the 1980s, Brennan and McGowan were Dublin’s biggest housebuilders, notwithstanding a reputation for unfinished and often shoddy work. Their combined assets were worth over £11 million and they lived the lives of squires on their stud farms. They kept Burke on tap, but moved their funding offshore; between 1982 and 1985, the politician received almost £125,000 in payments, channelled through banks and solicitors in Jersey.
The question that remains is what Burke did in return for this largesse.
The planning tribunal, while finding these payments were corrupt, was unable to link them to any specific favour performed by the politician.
At this remove, all we can do is admire Brennan and McGowan’s ability to waltz their way through the planning system. Take the example of the Plantation site on Dublin’s Pembroke Street, which was the subject of eight previous planning refusals until the two builders acquired it. When their own application to build offices and apartments was refused, they appealed it to An Bord Pleanála.
The appeals board overturned the decision.
Burke’s relationship with Charles Haughey is hard to untangle. There was bad blood between the two from the day Haughey attacked Paddy Burke in the Dáil, shortly after the Arms Trial. “Sit down, you old fool,” Haughey hissed at the elderly backbencher.
Twice Burke opposed Haughey in Fianna Fáil’s leadership battles, and twice he fought his way back into the inner cabal. The price Haughey extracted for this is not known, but on one occasion “Rambo” was seen reduced to tears after a bruising session with the party leader. With Haughey’s return to power in 1987, Burke was made minister for energy and communications. He liberalised the granting of exploration licences by abolishing royalty payments and State participation in oil finds, to the delight of the industry.
SIPTU has frequently called for an investigation of this area of Burke’s handiwork, but to date no evidence of wrongdoing in this area has emerged.
He also set to work dismantling RTÉ’s monopoly in broadcasting, by setting up the Independent Radio and Television Commission, which awarded the first commercial radio licence to Century Radio in 1989.
The same year was an annus mirabilis for Fianna Fáil’s money-getters, and Burke was determined not to be left out. Besides, with Brennan and McGowan having wound down their fundraising efforts, he needed alternative sources of funding.
And the money rolled in: at least £30,000 from JMSE; £30,000 from Rennicks Manufacturing on behalf of Tony O’Reilly’s Fitzwilton; £35,000 from Oliver Barry, founder of Century Radio. Only £10,000 of this money was passed on to Fianna Fáil.
These payments sowed the seeds of Burke’s destruction.
A decade later, Jim Gogarty, the company executive who made the JMSE payment, blew the whistle at the tribunal about his payment. Further investigation uncovered that the Barry payment was a bribe, and a year-long public hearing into Century Radio showed how Burke had moved heaven and earth to ensure his friend’s venture succeeded (it still flopped).
For reasons which have not been explained, the tribunal has not publicly investigated the Rennicks payment. The money was paid at a time when Burke was minister for communications and O’Reilly-linked companies were particular successful in obtaining MMDS rebroadcasting licences.
As rumours about payments to Burke started to multiply, Albert Reynolds sent the North Dublin TD into internal exile when he became Fianna Fáil leader in 1992. Two lawyers put up a reward for information on planning corruption and Gogarty’s allegations started to leak in the media, thereby increasing the pressure on Burke.
He responded with his usual mixture of lies, threats and bluster. He denied any wrongdoing, misled the Dáil (telling his colleagues, who at that stage knew of only one payment, that £30,000 was the “largest single contribution” he had received) and threatened legal action.
Yet in 1997 Bertie Ahern brought him back into the cabinet, claiming to have been “up every tree in north Dublin” to investigate the rumours.
In October that year, his political career finally came to an end when The Irish Times revealed how, as minister for justice, he had issued passports to a Saudi Arabian businessman and his family under the “passports for sale” scheme. “I have done nothing wrong,” he said as he resigned from the cabinet and the Dáil.
His subsequent downfall is well documented. The tribunal picked apart his evasions and stonewalling, and caught him lying about the offshore money he got from Brennan and McGowan. New accounts were discovered in the Channel Islands, London and the Isle of Man, some of them held in disguised names.
In 2002, Mr Justice Feargus Flood’s report found that all the main payments received by Burke were corrupt. Then it was the turn of the Criminal Assets Bureau, which raided the home of the disgraced former politician, served him with a £2 million tax demand and brought the charges which have resulted in his imprisonment.
Today, Burke sits behind bars for lying when availing of a tax amnesty, he has made a £600,000 settlement with the Revenue and he faces a multi-million legal bill.
His career and reputation are destroyed and he faces the possibility of further investigations and charges. Yet he remains unrepentant, and has resolutely refused to lift the lid on the culture of sleaze he presided over for so long. The full extent of his misdeeds will probably never be known.
It is possible to feel sorry for Burke. Those he helped are millionaires now, and their money is safely stowed away in offshore locations. Of the five others implicated by the tribunal in corruption, he is the only one so far to face criminal charges or end up in jail.
A big bad apple, yes, but hardly the only one.