By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN – A week after the highs of the peace deal, Dail politics are again embroiled in sleaze row after new revelations about a second political donation of _30,000 received by former Foreign Affairs Minister Ray Burke.
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has been strongly attacked by opposition parties for his handling of the latest payments-to-politicians debacle and now faces a concerted attack in the Dail when it returns after the bank holiday break later this week.
The newly disclosed payment, by Rennicks Manufacturing, was made to the former minister in 1989 when he also received a _30,000 donation from a property development company.
Rennicks is a subsidiary of the Fitzwilton group, in which Dr. Tony O’Reilly, the millionaire Heinz boss, is a major shareholder.
The opposition is demanding that all of Burke’s dealings with associate companies of Fitzwilton when he was minister for communications and minister for industry and commerce should now be probed by either the Flood or Moriarty Tribunals. They are already investigating sleaze allegations against politicians.
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The taoiseach said he was “disappointed” at the behavior of his former minister, who, up to his resignation, was one of his closest political associates.
Ahern said he had not known about the second payment until two months ago. There is considerable anger in Fianna Fail’s coalition partnership party, the Progressive Democrats, whose leader, Mary Harney, was not told until just days before the payment was publicized in the magazine Magill.
Harney ordered a trawl of files involving Rennicks and said she wanted the fullest possible investigation.
The taoiseach said last year he had looked at the Burke affair “inside out and upside down” on three occasions. “I went to, some people say, extraordinary lengths, to find out about it,” je said, adding that he was quite satisfied.
Burke, 54, resigned from both his ministry and his seat last year amid controversy about another _30,000 payment he received from Joseph Murphy Structural Engineers, a development company, in 1989.
Burke denied he had done anything wrong, but Fianna Fail lost the resulting byelection in North Dublin.
A legal discovery order served on Fianna Fail by the Oireachtas-appointed tribunal headed by High Court Judge Fergus Flood led to the revelation Burke received a second similar payment in 1989 when he was outgoing minister for industry and commerce.
The Flood Tribunal was set up last October to probe planning decisions surrounding over 700 acres in North Dublin.
Fianna Fail party headquarters said last year it had received _10,000 of the JMSE payment from Burke.
Following the discovery order, the party now says the money was part of a donation to Burke from Rennicks Manufacturing, a subsidiary of Fitzwilton.
One of the largest shareholders in Fitzwilton is O’Reilly. He has recently made an offer to buy out the remaining shareholders.
The row is a severe embarrassment to Ahern. Labor leader Ruairi Quinn’s revelations in the Dail have added to his problems.
Quinn disclosed that his predecessor, Dick Spring, had received an anonymous note last autumn claiming that Rennicks executives, at a meeting with Burke about an application for IDA state aid prior to the 1989 election, had been asked by him to make a political donation for him and his party. He had sought _30,000.
“This caused amazement and embarrassment to the delegation. They requested the opportunity to consider the matter. Mr [Robin] Rennicks paid over _30,000 to Ray Burke,” the letter said.
Fitzwilton “categorically denied” that any such meeting took place and said the money was handed to Burke in his home for Fianna Fail’s election fund and no favors had been received or sought.
Quinn said Spring had told Ahern about the letter at the time. “We now know what the taoiseach did with this information: precisely nothing,” Quinn said.
Before appointing Burke as foreign minister – a key appointment at the time as it involved negotiations on the Northern Ireland peace deal – Ahern sent Social Affairs Minister Dermot Ahern to London to investigate the Burke affair.
Ahern denied he deliberately misled the Dail last year. He said he had assumed the _10,000 given to his party headquarters by Burke in 1989 had come from JMSE.
“I did not know that he had received not one contribution of _30,000 in June 1989, but two amounting to _60,000,” Ahern said.
Fine Gael leader John Bruton said it was important that a full investigation be held of any dealings Burke had as minister with companies with overlapping ownership with Fitzwilton.
“The chairman of Fitzwilton Plc, Dr. Tony O’Reilly, is an immensely successful businessman,’ Bruton said. “He has created jobs and wealth in Ireland that all governments have acknowledged. As is well known, he has extensive business interests in a wide range of areas.
“One of Dr. O’Reilly’s interests concerns the television transmission system MMDS. That was a source of considerable controversy in the lead up to and aftermath of the general election of June 1997.
Burke was linked to that controversy.
“Dr. O’Reilly’s newspapers took a quite unprecedented interest in the result of the 1997 election.”
The Irish Independent carried a controversial eve-of-poll front-page editorial in support of the Fianna Fail-Progressive Democrats partnership headed “Pay Back Time”.
“Mr. Burke as minister for communications in the late 1980s issued licences for the operation of MMDS,” Bruton said in the Dail. “Of the 29 licences Mr. Burke awarded, 19 were awarded to Princes Holdings, a company associated with Independent Newspapers, which is controlled by Dr. O’Reilly, who also has a big interest in Fitzwilton.
“Nineteen of the 29 exclusive licences were issued to one company despite the fact that the regulations specifically required Minister Burke to have regard to ‘the desirability of allowing any person to have control of an undue number of program retransmission systems.’
“Was this monopolistic decision discussed at cabinet at the time?”
Bruton also drew attention to the fact that despite changing ministerial portfolio to justice after 1989, Burke still retained the communications portfolio. “This was considered a most unusual combination at the time,” he said.
Independent Newspapers and Princes Holdings have “categorically” denied that any improper payment was made in relation to the granting of the MMDS licences.