Dáil Éireann - Volume 481 - 07 October, 1997

Resignation of Member: Statements.

The Taoiseach: I appreciate the decision of the Ceann Comhairle to give us some minutes to make a few remarks.

Let me repeat briefly what I said at 2.30 p.m.

It is with profound regret that I have today accepted on behalf of the Government the resignation of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Raphael P. Burke, and his resignation from Dáil Éireann. Pending the appointment of a successor I, as Taoiseach, will assume responsibility for the Department of Foreign Affairs pro tem.

It is a double tragedy for Ray and his family that he should feel compelled to tender his resignation at a time of bereavement and great personal stress. His outstanding record of public service over the past 30 years, first as a county councillor and later as a TD, as well as the remarkable 29 years service of his late father, Patrick J. Burke, demonstrate in real terms the deep commitment of the Burke family to the people of Dublin North and Dublin county.

In recent times, as Minister for Foreign Affairs, he was deeply involved on behalf of the nation in the difficult and demanding search for agreement in the Northern Ireland peace process. Ray Burke showed all the superb professional skills of organisation, communication and vigour for which he was so rightly renowned. He and his family can feel immensely proud of the major role he played in Government in successfully achieving the breakthrough which resulted in today's historic achievements in the North.

I thank him for the consummate professionalism with which he also fulfilled his ministerial duties. Ray Burke always distinguished himself in the ministries to which he was appointed by his [41] great managerial capabilities and his high work rate. He introduced a series of initiatives in law reform and structural changes while in the Department of Justice, as well as tackling the whole area of serious offences against children. He opened up a whole new era of local broadcasting when he legislated for the now successful local radio network which has changed the face of Irish broadcasting. He stood four square with the strategically important development of Dublin Airport in good times and when times were tough. He was, in turn, an excellent Minister for the Environment, for Energy, for Communications, for Justice and for Foreign Affairs. He brought distinction to his proud family tradition, to his family, his friends, his colleagues and his constituents. This country owes him a debt of gratitude for his work on behalf of the nation and his constant commitment to quality performance in his allotted tasks.

Those who choose politics as a profession know from the outset that they are putting their lives on the line in their determination to serve the public. They have to accept the criticism which attends their decisions and their every action. Their families too learn to take the brunt of stinging remarks which often overstep the boundaries of civility and courtesy. In the case of Ray Burke, I see a much more sinister development, the persistent hounding of an honourable man to resign his important position on the basis of innuendo and unproven allegations. Some who would class themselves as protectors of basic civil rights have harried and hounded this man without according him the basic right of due process which deems us innocent unless proven guilty. The according of due process is not just a basic right but the very essence of common decency. There has been a sustained campaign of incremental intensity. When this debate first began there were calls for Ray Burke to make a public statement. There were demands for a Dáil statement followed by questions and answers, but when it was agreed that a special tribunal would deal with all the issues fairly and comprehensively, that was still not enough. There comes a time when even the strongest shoulder bows, the stoutest heart falters and the very best can resist no longer.

I regret the resignation of Mr. Burke, my party colleague for over 20 years and my Cabinet colleague for most of that period. I deeply regret the reasons for his resignation and the pain and anguish caused to his wife Anne, family and friends. It is an indictment of those involved in forcing him to this pass that they clamoured for his resignation without giving him the proper opportunity of proving his case before a properly constituted tribunal or otherwise. I have always found him to be a proud, honourable man, loyal, true, persevering, principled, caring and committed but tough and a person who lost friends easily. On behalf of the Government but in particular on behalf of the Fianna Fáil Party, I thank him for his distinguished years of service to his constituents and his country.

[42] Mr. J. Bruton: I regret the circumstances which have led to Mr. Burke's resignation at a difficult time for him personally and on a sad day for his family.

Mr. Andrews: On a point of information, do we have to put up with this humbug and hypocrisy?

An Ceann Comhairle: Order, please. I ask the Minister to, please, resume his seat.

Mr. J. Bruton: I regret that after 24 years of unbroken membership of this House Mr. Burke felt it necessary to resign his Dáil seat. As Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Justice he was always resolute in dealing with those who would undermine the security of the State. The Taoiseach has outlined his legislative achievements.

Mr. Andrews: The Deputy should have the decency not to make a speech. I intend to leave the House in protest. It is an outrage.

Mr. Dukes: The Minister should sit down.

An Ceann Comhairle: The Minister is out of order. I ask him to resume his seat.

Mr. Andrews: The Deputy did not have the decency to keep his mouth shut when he knew Mr. Burke's brother was dead.

Mr. D. Ahern: Crocodile tears.

Mr. J. Bruton: I will repeat what I said as the Minister for Defence, Deputy Andrews, chose to interrupt my statement. I regret the circumstances which have led to Mr. Burke's resignation at a difficult time for him personally and on a sad day for his family. I regret that he felt it necessary to bring to an end his 24 years of unbroken service in this House. As Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Justice he showed himself to be resolute in defending the security of the State. When he made his personal statement in the House we, on this side, were criticised by many, including some on the Government side out of the side of their mouth, for not going hard enough on him and for not jumping to conclusions on that occasion.

I note what the Taoiseach had to say about innuendoes. Both he and his party are masters of innuendo. I will not deal extensively on this occasion with what I have repeatedly said in recent days is the core issue. The Taoiseach knew about all the matters involved before he appointed Mr. Burke as Minister and Mr. Burke's sacrifice of himself and his political career does not detract in any way from the Taoiseach's knowledge of and responsibility for the events which have led to this day.

Mr. D. Ahern: The Deputy is wise to sit down.

[43] Mr. Quinn: I learned earlier today that Mr. Burke had resigned from the Government. In view of the additional revelations and allegations which appeared over the weekend I was not surprised. No Minister could have sustained that pressure indefinitely, particularly when there was every indication that the pressure would continue or that there could be further allegations. I did not suspect however, nor did anyone else, that Mr. Burke would resign from Dáil Éireann. The pressure on him since his appointment as Minister for Foreign Affairs was immense and it showed no sign of relenting. It was not confined to him but extended to his immediate family at a time of a family bereavement. I am not entirely surprised therefore by his decision to resign from Dáil Éireann. Clearly the pressure on him and his family had become unbearable. It is an indication for the public and the media of the difficulties in public life and how those difficulties have been intensified in recent times.

Mr. Burke has made the correct decision in the interests of the country. His responsibilities and the state of the talks in Northern Ireland were such that he could not do the job required of him while these matters were engulfing him. I regret, however, that in deciding to resign from this House he did not choose to make a comprehensive statement on the exact reasons he not only resigned from the Government but also from Dáil Éireann.

I welcome the fact, contained in the statement, that he intends to co-operate fully with the investigations of the Moriarty Tribunal, which will be conducted in due course.

The Government finds itself in a difficult position. Its minority position has been further eroded and its confidence is visibly shaken. The Taoiseach has assumed responsibility for foreign affairs, but we do not know for how long he will retain that responsibility. Bearing in mind that the Northern Ireland talks are at a critical juncture, it is absolutely essential that a new Minister for Foreign Affairs be appointed without further delay. That person, whoever he or she may be, must be given the maximum support in order to familiarise himself or herself with a complex and complicated brief.

All the matters we are discussing today, and the speculation that has brought them to a head, could have been avoided at the outset of the formation of this Government if the Taoiseach had displayed leadership, courage and judgment in the composition of his Government. Sadly for former Deputy Burke, he did not do so but, more importantly, the interests of the country have been damaged as a result.

Dr. O'Hanlon: Rubbish.

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Miss Harney): This is clearly a sad day for former Deputy Burke, his family and colleagues. It is particularly sad because of the family bereavement which he has had to endure.

[44] This morning his brother was laid to rest. Former Deputy Burke has done the right thing from his own point of view and that of his family and the Government. Being in Government is certainly demanding. As he said himself in the statement he issued this afternoon, being involved in the Northern Ireland talks, in particular, at this historic juncture required his total focus. He was not in a position to give it his total focus because of the ongoing controversy that has surrounded his term as Minister for the past 14 weeks.

While I did not know former Deputy Burke well, I admired him, particularly for the stand he took against the men of violence over a long period both as a Minister and Opposition Deputy. During the past 14 weeks I got to know him better. I respected the fact that he had an enormous command of his brief and he worked tirelessly to bring about peace in Northern Ireland. On the night the Government was appointed, he told me that Foreign Affairs was the one ministry he had always wanted. He worked in that Department with a great sense of excitement and determination. In so far as he could, notwithstanding the controversy, he worked extremely hard.

I also sat with him on two Cabinet sub-committees; one on Northern Ireland, the other dealing with European affairs. I saw at first hand what a sharp mind he had and how determined and tough he was. It is all the more regrettable that he had to resign in these circumstances. We have lost out because, if circumstances had been right, he had the capacity to deliver a lasting political settlement thanks to the kind of negotiating skills I saw him display over the past number of weeks.

I wish former Deputy Burke and his wife Anne well. In recent months his family has suffered much illness, which has added to the enormous personal pressure he has had to endure. I saw him this morning and he is a shaken man. Over the next few weeks I hope he will have an opportunity to take stock, have a rest and perhaps to reflect on what has happened. I hope that in whatever career he now chooses to follow, he will have success and will get the kind of delight and satisfaction he got from politics both in Opposition and in Government.

Proinsias De Rossa: Ray Burke's position as a Minister had become untenable and, therefore, he took the correct course in resigning from Government. It had become increasingly obvious that he could not operate effectively as a Minister, especially giving the crucial talks in Northern Ireland the attention they need, with the controversies that were raging around him. It is essential that a full-time Minister for Foreign Affairs should now be appointed as a matter of urgency to take up those negotiations.

The resignation of former Deputy Burke raises serious questions about the political judgment of the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste. Why did the Taoiseach appoint him to such a senior and sensitive position when he was aware of the extraordinary circumstances of the acceptance by Mr. [45] Burke of a donation of £30,000 in 1989, and when he had initiated a series of inquiries into the Minister's role in the sale of passports in 1990?

Similarly, the Tánaiste, Deputy Harney, has serious questions to answer. Within two months she moved from a position of total and unqualified support for Mr. Burke, to frantic efforts to distance herself from him over the past few days.

Dr. Woods: That is not true. The Deputy should withdraw it.

Proinsias De Rossa: Does the Tánaiste still stand over the statement she made on 7 August when she said she had total faith in the Taoiseach's judgment in relation to Fianna Fáil members of the Cabinet?

While Mr. Burke's resignation as a Minister had been generally anticipated, there will be widespread surprise at his decision to resign from the Dáil. I heard nobody calling for his resignation as a Deputy. Time will probably reveal what went on within the Government parties which led him to resign from the Dáil.

Dr. Woods: More of the Deputy's innuendo.

Mr. C. Lenihan: He never denied his own handwriting anyway.

Proinsias De Rossa: Certainly, it is difficult to understand why the Taoiseach voted down the Democratic Left amendment that would have permitted an inquiry by the Moriarty Tribunal at the preliminary stage, and then proceeded to announce, out of the blue, the establishment of a totally new and separate tribunal.

On a personal level, everyone, including Members of the Opposition, will have sympathy with the situation in which former Deputy Burke found himself. The Deputies opposite are, presumably, the only people in this House who have any human feelings at all.

Dr. Woods: Thank you very much.

Proinsias De Rossa: If they had any human feelings, however, they would not have kept former Deputy Burke in that position for such a long time.

I genuinely regret his decision to leave public life.

Mr. D. Ahern: That is the height of hypocrisy.

Mr. Gormley: This is obviously a personal tragedy for former Deputy Burke and his family. I think it was John Hume who once said that all politics ends in tears. There was a terrible inevitability about this decision. An unstoppable momentum had built up over the past few weeks which led to obvious internal tensions in the [46] Government. These tensions could well be exacerbated by today's events.

Mr. D. Ahern: You wish.

Mr. Gormley: At the end of the day, however, the correct decision was taken. At a human level we can all sympathise with Mr. Burke and his family, particularly today when they are going through a family bereavement. No one enjoys seeing a colleague in distress.

On that day when former Deputy Burke answered questions in the Dáil he was obviously under severe pressure and I found it excruciating. I went to a Fianna Fáil colleague afterwards who was advising the Minister and I asked him to pass on the message that this was not to be taken personally. His response was a noble one. He said: “Never apologise for doing your parliamentary duty”. On occasion, it is hard to avoid feeling like a member of a firing squad, but we are in an adversarial system.

Mr. D. Ahern: It will turn on the Deputy some day.

Mr. Gormley: Former Deputy Burke and his family have been through a horrendous ordeal which has taken its toll. He has made an honourable decision today and I hope his ordeal will come to an end. On behalf of the Green Party, I wish him and his family well.

An Ceann Comhairle: That completes statements by party leaders and their nominees. Are there any remaining questions on the Order of Business?

Mr. Wright: I am a constituency colleague.

An Ceann Comhairle: There is no provision or precedent for individual Deputies to make statements, but if the House so wishes I will allow very brief statements from his party colleagues and from Deputy Ó Caoláin.

Mr. Wright: I would like to mention the 30 years of service that former Deputy Burke gave to the constituency of Dublin North. That excellent service was maintained by an office based in Swords. The Taoiseach outlined former Deputy Burke's tremendous record in every ministry he held, particularly the Department of Justice where the great deal of reforming legislation he introduced will stand the test of time. For over 12 years as a party colleague I soldiered through thick and thin with former Deputy Burke. At all times we had an honest personal relationship which culminated in the last election with an excellent result for Fianna Fáil in winning two seats. One opinion poll which matters for everyone in politics is the electorate. On each occasion that former Deputy Ray Burke stood in Dublin North on behalf of Fianna Fáil, the people made him their poll topper.

[47] I sympathise with Ann, Yvonne and Suzanne and all his friends, particularly in Dublin North, on this tragic day and I wish him future success.

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: On behalf of Sinn Féin, I want to record our appreciation of the positive role played by former Deputy Ray Burke in the peace process. He helped to steer the process towards the substantive talks which have finally come to pass. The priority for Sinn Féin and for everyone concerned with the success of the peace process should not be the personalities of the Irish Government delegation at Stormont but the policies and principles they advance there. It is essential that the national interest is promoted at the talks. The Government's priority in the talks should be the failure of partition, the need for fundamental political and constitutional change, the constitutional imperative to move towards Irish unity and sovereignty and the need to end the Union with Britain. This will be the task of whoever is chosen to succeed Mr. Burke.

We must put the controversies which have precipitated this resignation in perspective. Citizens have been told by successive Administrations that they are cleaning up their act and that they want to restore the reputation of politics and politicians in the eyes of the public. The current series of revelations exposes a political culture where the wealthy are rewarded for their connections with those in Government and vice versa. It is not a question of certain politicians giving all the rest a bad name. The issue is one of policies and practices which favour the haves against the have nots. It is unfortunate that this resignation has overshadowed the commencement today at Stormont of the most important talks since partition on the future of this country. The success of the negotiations should be the continuing priority for us all.

I extend my sympathy and that of my colleagues at all levels in the party to Mr. Burke on his recent bereavement.

Mr. Davern: This is the only occasion when a Member has resigned from this House where only one of his constituency colleagues has paid tribute to him. Yesterday Ken Magennis asked that he be left alone during a family bereavement.

An Ceann Comhairle: I explained to the House that I was only allowing party leaders to make a statement.