By John Kelly
There I was, thinking of all sorts of controversies, like Michelle Smith de Bruin, wondering whether she does or she doesn’t. And Rule 21 of the GAA code, which forbids members of the British forces in Ireland from playing the games of the Gael. And, too, Gerry Adam’s visit to New York and his more militant stance on decommissioning. Then, suddenly, without warning, wham, bang, here we are in the throes of another political payoff scandal.
At the center of it all, yet again, is the stocky, craggy-jawed, Raph’l Burke, former minister for foreign affairs and a man who doesn’t mince words when he fires his own sarcasm from the hip.
You may remember that the former minister resigned from his post and also forsook his safe Dail seat to future fortunes when it was established that he accepted a gift of _30,000 from an entrepreneurial fan during an election campaign.
After first denying all knowledge, admitting to the Dail that he had accepted a “contribution” and insisted that he had donated _10,000 to the Fianna Fail party. The rest, he had used to finance his own campaign, using the remainder to build a tennis court in his palatial home in the north county town of Swords.
The Irish media followed it all the way down the line. It had everything. There was greed. There was political influence. There was pathos after Ray Burke almost broke down during his confession to his Dail colleagues. Finally, there was high drama after he resigned.
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The Irish Independent, owned by that towering baron of the bean trade, Tony O’Reilly, was one of the newspapers that harried Burke most dutifully. There were news stories galore, features aplenty and editorial apoplexy daily.
Almost totally ignored by the media in general was the possible damage the revelations could do to the peace process, which was then taking its first toddling steps. The taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, was the man in the middle.
Ahern is back between the rock and the hard place. Burke is known to be one of his most faithful supporters from his earliest political career, a career that was almost willed to him by his much loved late father, a Westerner who carved a Fianna Fail dynasty in north County Dublin.
Just over 20 years ago, it was very much a rural fiefdom albeit on the northern fringe of the city, bounded by bustling Dublin Airport. In later times, as the Celtic Tiger continues to prowl, the twin towns of Malahide and Swords have enjoyed unparalleled prosperity. Cheek by jowl with the sea, as they lie, development property was scarce and expensive.
There were all sorts of rumors within media circles, fueled by some county councilors keen to dislodge “Raphie,” as he is called locally, from his seat.
There was continual whispering about bulging brown envelopes. There was talk about planning applications, which somehow managed to slip through the buckle of the “green belt” designated sites. There was a lot of conjecture but little proof. Even with a freedom of information act, such charges are difficult to prove. The north county green belt became thinner and thinner as housing density increased.
Burke has been no stranger to controversy. In the relatively innocuous ’60s, it was established that he had been paid the highest salary of all for consultancy work ancillary to the development of Dublin Airport.
The newspaper that dared to break that particular story was the Sunday Independent.
Strangely, now that one of the biggest scandals concerning Burke has been exposed, its sister daily paper, the Irish Independent has practically ignored the whole thing.
Many cynical people will not be at all surprised. The story probably broke so quickly, courtesy of Magill magazine, which was desperately seeking a bombshell to boost faltering circulation, that nervous editorial executives must have waited to see what O’Reilly was thinking; that is, if he was thinking about it at all.
Why should they be so nervous?
There was a second small donation of _30,000 (Funny how the figures should be so identical), but apparently Raphie had not bothered to pass any of the first donation to the mainstream party. In fact, it seems that the _10,000 he paid to the party came from the hitherto unknown second contribution in 1989, not from the first, as Ray had tearfully informed the Dail.
And, surprise of surprises, the donor has turned out to be an executive in one of the myriad companies owned by Dr. AJF O’Reilly, Rennicks Manufacturing, a subsidiary of Fitzwilton, of which he is chairman.
Now, where does that leave John Q. Citizen, or his missus, for that matter, along with their teenage fat cats, the golden voters who power the Celtic Tiger all the way to the deposit counter of the Euro bank?
It leaves them very angry but not at all surprised. Yet another state tribunal, plus a few extra million for the deprived legal eagles, will soon officially inform them of the sordid facts of human nature in case they may have forgotten the last installments.
And where does it leave Irish politics in general and the Fianna Fail party in particular?
In more than the usual state of flux, that’s where.
Peculiar thing is that although Ahern seemed to accept that Burke had turned over _10,000 from the original _30,000, donated by Joseph Murphy, Structural Engineers, Fianna Fail records show that in an affidavit of discovery, presented to the Flood Tribunal on April 1, that the party receipt instead listed Rennicks as the donors.
No matter how popular Ahern is, you can be sure that things will not be allowed to remain the same.
Where does it leave O’Reilly?
With egg all over his face.
Why did the Irish Independent take the unparalleled step of running a front page editorial urging voters to back Ahern and Fianna Fail during the last general election campaign?
Surely not because Princess Holdings, which runs MMDS, a satellite TV retransmission company, won a lucrative government monopoly with the considerable aid of Ray Burke.
Perish the thought.