A skilled negotiator, Dick Burke's achievements and influence still felt in Irish life to the present day
Published 19/03/2016 | 02:30
Dick Burke was a successful European Commissioner on two occasions. He was responsible, after the 1982 Greek elections, in the negotiation with the new Greek government, of terms whereby Greece remained a member of the European Union.
He also was involved in the exceptionally complex negotiations whereby Greenland, although remaining part of Denmark, was allowed to leave the EU, while Denmark proper remained within. His courtesy and ability to listen were key factors in his success as a Commissioner.
Dick Burke was also a very successful, reforming, Minister for Education, with concrete achievements to his name.
He introduced the Transition Year and School Management Boards.
To have persuaded the various "establishments", that dominated education in Ireland at the time, to accept and to successfully operate these major reforms was a big negotiating achievement.
He was able to do this because he won the trust of existing institutional interests. While he wanted change, he was able to make it happen because he also showed respect for what the existing institutions had achieved for the children of Ireland in times when resources were more scarce.
He relaxed the "compulsory Irish" system in education and introduced Irish Studies, as a way of promoting a more inclusive understanding of what it is to be Irish. His thinking on this was ahead of his time.
He was a pleasure to work for. He delegated responsibility but was always accessible for advice. He was supportive without being intrusive. I can never recollect him being angry, although he would have had reason to be sometimes!
We were elected to the Dáil on the same day in 1969. My first political responsibility was to act (with Dr Hugh Byrne) as one of his two Assistant Whips, when Dick was appointed to be Chief Whip of the Fine Gael Party by Liam Cosgrave.
I was subsequently his Parliamentary Secretary when he was appointed as Minister for Education in 1973.
In ideological terms, Dick Burke was proud to be a Christian Democrat. As a student of Christian and Catholic social teaching, he fully understood this political tradition. When Ireland joined the European Common Market, he was particularly happy to have been one of those who persuaded the Fine Gael party to associate itself with the European Christian Democratic movement, now the European People's Party. This was a far-seeing decision that continues to enhance Ireland's influence in Europe to this day.
After the first of his terms as a European Commissioner, he was able to return to win a Dáil seat for Fine Gael, in a completely different constituency to the one he had first represented. This was a remarkable and almost unique political achievement.
To the end of his life, he continued to take a deep interest in the Fine Gael party and attended party events to show support for current leaders of the party.
I extend to Mary, and his entire family, to whom he was deeply devoted, my heartfelt sympathy.