Tuesday 27 September 2016

Obituary: Dick Burke, politician

Born: March 29, 1932; died: March 15, 2016

Published 20/03/2016 | 02:30

Visionary: Dick Burke introduced a number of far-reaching reforms to the education system.
Visionary: Dick Burke introduced a number of far-reaching reforms to the education system.
Dick Burke in the 1980s during his time as European Commissioner.

New York-born and Tipperary-bred, Dick Burke was an innovative, reforming and indeed pioneering Minister for Education, who also served two terms as Ireland's European Commissioner.

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Although the government of which he was part crashed, disastrously and infamously, at the subsequent election, his term in office from 1973 to 1976 is considered a strong success by posterity. Burke, who died this week, introduced Transition Year in secondary schools, relaxed the rules on Leaving Cert Irish and gave Maynooth its independence, among other notable achievements.

His former Fine Gael frontbench colleague John Bruton - the pair were first elected to the Dáil on the same day in 1969 - declared himself to be "really shocked to learn of the death of my friend. He was a pleasure to work for… supportive without being intrusive. I can never recollect him being angry, although he would have had reason to be sometimes."

Richard Burke was born on March 29, 1932 in New York. His Irish parents returned to Upperchurch in Co Tipperary four years later. He was educated at the Christian Brothers School in Thurles, then at UCD and King's Inns. He would eventually be called to the bar - during his time as Minister - and also lectured in European Law at Leverett House in Harvard, during a fellowship year from 1980 to 81.

Prior to moving into politics, Burke had worked as a teacher. He first tarried with the Christian Democrat Movement, which had been founded by the late Seán Dublin Bay Rockall Loftus, but soon became a member of Fine Gael.

Dick was elected to Dublin County Council in 1967, and two years later became a TD for Dublin County South. Fine Gael chief Liam Cosgrave appointed him Chief Whip, a significant honour for a debutant TD.

In March 1973, the party entered government as the larger partner in a coalition with Labour. Ireland at the time was in fairly dire straits, economically and politically. The so-called "National Coalition" had to deal with the worst recession in two decades, an escalation in violence during The Troubles, tough and unpopular anti-terrorist laws, the world energy crisis, controversial social issues like contraception, and an upcoming Presidential election (which would be won by Fianna Fáil).

Cosgrave's "Government of all talents" included future Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald, intellectual and diplomat Conor Cruise O'Brien, and Dick Burke as Education Minister. An astute political operator, he did well in office, though his time in Government was not without its hiccups - Burke was among those to vote against his own government's Contraceptives Bill.

He introduced the Transition Year and management boards to post-primary schools, gave what is now NUI Maynooth its independence, and did important work in the build-up to the eventual establishment of Dublin City University.

In terms of the Irish language, he removed the requirement for students to pass Irish in order to pass their Leaving Cert, and he introduced Irish studies as a way of - in the words of John Bruton - "promoting a more inclusive understanding of what it is to be Irish. His thinking on this was ahead of his time".

He was also embroiled in a row with University of Limerick (then NIHE Limerick), and its President Ed Walsh, in 1976 over an obligation on graduating students to sign matriculation forms before the NUI would award their degrees. As tempers ran high, an NIHE board member even quoted Oliver Cromwell when exhorting the students, "I beseech you in the bowels of Christ…to accept the compromise on offer and outlast this government."

Burke himself did not last the course with that government. In 1976 he won an internal cabinet battle with Cabinet colleague, the Labour Minister for Industry and Commerce Justin Keating, for the nomination as Ireland's second European Commissioner. Succeeding President-in-waiting Patrick Hillery, Burke helped form much of his party's policy on Europe, and was responsible for Fine Gael joining the Christian Democrats group in the European Parliament.

He didn't contest the 1977 general election - when the government parties were wiped out in a Fianna Fáil landslide - but on completing a four-year term as Commissioner, he stood again at the 1981 election after returning from a one-year sabbatical in Harvard, winning the Dublin West seat for Fine Gael.

He was not appointed to what proved a very short-lived Coalition cabinet. Yet another general election followed in early 1982, in which Burke retained his seat. The same year he accepted an offer from Fianna Fáil Taoiseach Charles Haughey to go to Brussels for a second term as Commissioner.

Burke was nominated as Vice-President of the Commission, and later became President and CEO of the Stichting Canon Foundation (a philanthropic institution which promotes cultural and scientific co-operation between Europe and Japan) until his retirement in 1998.

After news broke of his death this week, President Michael D Higgins paid tribute by saying: "It is with sadness that I have learned of the death of Richard Burke. He will be remembered for his two terms as EU Commissioner under two different governments, and his contribution to the establishment of a comprehensive system of higher level education."

John Bruton, who was parliamentary secretary in the Department of Education when Burke was Minister, added: "He was a very successful, reforming Minister. (And) when Ireland joined the European Common Market, he was particularly happy to have been one of those who persuaded Fine Gael to associate with the Christian Democratic movement. This far-seeing decision continues to enhance Ireland's influence in Europe to this day."

Dick Burke died peacefully at his home on March 15. He is survived by his wife Mary and five of his six children. He was predeceased by his son Joseph.

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