Friday 30 September 2016

Obituary: Dick Burke

The Fine Gael TD was appointed EU Commissioner by Haughey

Published 20/03/2016 | 02:30

IN THE SADDLE: Burke was a believer in the European ideal
IN THE SADDLE: Burke was a believer in the European ideal

For Irish people of a certain age, the name Dick Burke will always be associated with embattled Taoiseach Charles Haughey's unsuccessful stratagem to increase his Dail numbers in April 1982.

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Haughey offered Burke, then a Fine Gael TD in five-seat Dublin West, the post of EU Commissioner in the hope of shoring up his minority Fianna Fail government with a by-election win. After some soul-searching, Burke horrified his party by accepting the plum post, which had been vacated after just 15 months in office by Fianna Fail's Michael O'Kennedy.

But Fianna Fail lost the resultant by-election and Burke later recalled that he had celebrated news of the outcome at "Comme Chez Soi," Brussels's most exclusive restaurant. It was Burke's second coming as Ireland's EU Commissioner as he had served there from 1976 until 1979.

Mr Burke's death last week, at the age of 83, severed another link with the political era of Liam Cosgrave, Jack Lynch, Garret FitzGerald and Charles Haughey. He was born in New York in 1932 but his family returned to their native Upperchurch, Tipperary, in 1935, where he attended the local parish school.

He went to Thurles CBS in 1944, cycling a round trip of 24 miles to and from school each day until his final year when his family sent him as a boarder. After taking some rudimentary training as a primary teacher, he began work in various private schools in Dublin while taking a night degree in English, History and French in UCD and he later went on to complete an MA and study for the bar at King's Inns.

Burke's first encounter with politics was when he joined the small, unregistered political party called the Christian Democrats. He would later admit the party was not particularly Christian in ethos or unduly committed to democracy - but he always insisted that he had a life-long interest in Catholic social action and was well acquainted with the work of many French writers in that field.

Soon after that, he joined Fine Gael and became acquainted with its new leader Liam Cosgrave, to whom he claimed a very distant relationship via marriage. Cosgrave clearly rated and trusted Burke and he appointed him party chief whip on his first stint in the Dail in 1969 as TD for Dublin South.

When the Fine Gael-Labour coalition won in 1973, Burke was appointed Education Minister. He is recalled as a reformer, who relaxed the rule on compulsory passing of Irish to pass the entire Leaving Cert and introduced other innovations like the transition year for secondary schools.

But some of his projects were less welcome. His decisions on degree-accreditation for Limerick's National Institute of Higher Education, the forerunner of UL, seriously retarded that institution's progress. He was also deeply conservative on issues of personal morality. On July 16, 1974, Burke was among five Fine Gael TDs who joined Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave in voting down their own government's legislation on contraception, which would have permitted the sale of contraceptives by licensed pharmacists to married couples only. It was one of the most extraordinary episodes in Irish political history and left party colleagues stunned.

Burke's first appointment to Brussels caused a rare vote in Cabinet, which he won by nine votes to six. He had the support of Cosgrave but Garret FitzGerald supported Labour's Industry Minister, Justin Keating, who was also a personal friend and UCD colleague.

In Brussels, he recruited some of the brightest Irish people to his advisory cabinet. These included Alan Dukes, who had earlier set up the Irish Farmers' Association Brussels lobbying office, and Catherine Day, a future secretary general of the European Commission. He also found work for John Hume, in part to help him through a difficult period. At the end of his four-year EU term, he spent a year studying at Harvard. Then he returned to Dail politics, at a time of extreme volatility, taking a seat in Dublin West in June 1981 and holding it again in February 1982.

He was extremely disappointed not to get a cabinet post from Garret FitzGerald. But he should not have been surprised as the pair were poles apart and he mockingly referred to FitzGerald's liberal "constitutional crusade" as "constitutional striptease".

Dick Burke always conceded that his second appointment to Brussels was "a Haughey stroke." But he always argued that his primary interest in politics derived from a passion for European integration. Years later, an RTE journalist unearthed a politicians' questionnaire he had filled in for the station before the 1969 general election which backed this up.

During his years in Brussels, his wife Mary and their six children remained in Dublin, so as not to disturb their schooling. Many warm tributes were paid to him by former colleagues last week.

Sunday Independent

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