By John Kelly
It seems that few people in Ireland are surprised by the latest revelations in the Ray Burke affair. Not in the least. The Irish may want to trust politicians, particularly Irish politicians, but they are not so naive to believe they are all immune to the financial blandishments of those who would trade their money for influence.
While cynicism is to be avoided, naivety is nothing but adolescent ignorance. That is not a bad thing in itself, so long as people have learned enough to realize the extent of their ignorance.
Thus, no one is surprised about the allegations that Burke – son of a revered north Dublin county T.D., Paddy Burke, who garnered huge majority voting surpluses in the constituency with the ease of a good farmer clamping turf in early autumn – accepted a second $30,000 political donation.
And while it may not astound, it is still a disappointment. Ray Burke could have become a leader of Fianna Fail, which is still, by far, the majority party in this country. And I still wait in anticipation of the definitive Irish leader, the person who can put the human face before the rippling haunches of the Celtic Tiger, a person who can confidently prod this New Ireland into the next millennium.
What this country needs most of all is an honest politician. When you come to think about it, that is probably as unlikely as a good five-cent cigar.
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What we, the plain people of Ireland, require is a person who will tell it as it is, and will manage to live solely on a politician’s salary, one who works with a real sense of idealism and commitment because he or she really believes that this is what the electorate both demand and deserves.
It has been a mighty long time since any of politicians expressed that type of leadership. Perhaps Sean Lemass was really the last real taoiseach. Jack Lynch might have made it except for some ridiculously transparent memory lapses in the early 1970s when C.J. Haughey was legally embroiled in charges concerning a misbegotten attempt to import arms illegally for the defense of Northern nationalists.
However, both Lemass and Lynch possessed national loyalty, a commitment to the electorate and a genuine belief that their party, Fianna Fail, could best provide it.
At the same time, it has also got to be remembered that it was Lemass in particular who opened the doors of government to big business, if it can be said that there was such a rare tiger lurking in the economic wilderness of the 1950s and ’60s.
As well as introducing the grandiosely termed “Second Programme for Economic Expansion,” the economic syringe that injected the Irish economy with the Keynesian Multiplier Effect, it was also Lemass who laid the seeds for the development of Taca, a loose federation of businessmen dedicated to development.
It was the origin of what came to be known as the mohair suit brigade within Fianna Fail. Most leadership contenders were members. Unfortunately, some realized that it could be to their personal benefit as well.
Ray Burke seems to have been one of the most astute pupils. He took over his father’s safe seat in the rapidly developing Dublin north county. Looking back at the files, I see that he quickly made progress, both as a leading Fianna Fail politician and a successful local entrepreneur.
As far back as 1974, when Burke was a Dublin county councilor, in addition to being a T.D., the Sunday Independent ran a banner front page story introducing its readers to an investigation into planning applications, generally for rezoning farmland to housing development filed by councilors who often had direct personal financial interests in the result.
There was nothing illegal about it, of course. There was, and still is, no legal requirement for Irish politicians to register their business interests. Only recently, mainly as the result of the Lowry-Haughey affair, have political parties been obliged to divulge business contributions over a certain minimum figure.
One of the most profitable businesses a politician could indulge in during the ’60s and ’70s was auctioneering. The only qualification for that particular trade was the ability to buy and sell commodities, especially land.
In 1971, Burke, as a councilor, seconded a motion for the redevelopment of an area called Mountgorry in Swords where he lives. It involved the sale of 35 acres of industrial land to a company called Pagebar. Earlier, the same councilor urged that the former agricultural land should be rezoned for industrial use to encourage more jobs in the Swords region.
It was estimated by the Sunday Independent that the change added about _400,000 to the value of a site, no small peanuts in 1974. It was also passed at a time when one of the people involved in setting up the company concerned had options on the land involved.
In fact, the wife of another north Dublin county councilor owned the tract.
In the heading under “Professional Fees,” concerning the financing of the deal, Burke was listed as the chief beneficiary, earning no less than _15,000. Incidentally, in 1974, a four-bedroom house in that particular area of north County Dublin could be sold for a price in the region of _5,000.
Politicians from all parties quickly put up auctioneering shingles over their new porches. One of them was the then Fine Gael senator, John Boland. It became the most common extra-curricular activities for politicians. One who helped to redevelop the booming suburb of Tallaght became a millionaire.
Am I cynical?
In the local election immediately after the deal was put through, Burke and Boland topped the poll in the Swords area.
Should I be cynical about the politicians – or the people who elect them?