The following is a transcript of their exchange:
In late January, a former Justice Minister in the Irish government, Ray Burke, was sentenced to imprisonment by the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court after pleading guilty to making false tax returns.
Burke was a leading politician in Fianna Fail (the governing, right wing party) from the 1970s up to the late 1990s. He held key positions in government, including the post of foreign affairs minister, to which he was appointed by the present Taoiseach (prime minister), Bertie Ahern, in 1997.
In September 2002, an interim report of the Flood Tribunal, which was set up to look into allegations of corruption in planning and land deals, found that Burke had received tens of thousands of dollars in corrupt and secret payments from businessmen. The report said that in 1989, when Burke was Ireland’s communications minister, he received a bribe from a group applying for a radio license.
On 2 February, Joe Higgins, the Socialist Party (cwi in Ireland) Dáil Éireann Deputy (member of the Irish Parliament), attacked the corruption of pro-capitalist politicians, like Burke. Joe debated with the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern. socialistworld.net.
Socialist MP attacks Prime Minister over convicted ex-minister
Dáil Éireann; Leaders’ Questions; Wednesday 2nd February 2005
Joe Higgins (Socialist Party): In view of Mr. Ray Burke being convicted of serious criminality and abusing high office as a Fianna Fáil Minister, can the Taoiseach explain why he appointed him to the Cabinet in 1997 and why he savaged those who questioned him for taking that decision given that he vindicated Mr. Burke in the strongest terms? The Taoiseach must explain because when Fianna Fáil was mired in corruption and sleaze in the 1980s, nobody believes he did not know what was going on. He was the party fixer and the runner for party leader, Mr. Haughey. It is simply not credible that he did not know what Mr. Burke and his team of cronies were up to regarding re-zonings and land corruption.
The Taoiseach may have kept his own face out of the feeding frenzy at the speculator’s trough but he knew it was there, he knew who was bucketing the swill into it and he knew the biggest snouts who were slurping from it but, unlike when I was a young fellow on a farm in Kerry when we had to take a stick to the greediest pigs, he simply left them at it.
John O’Donoghue (Fianna Fáil): Animal farm.
J. Higgins: The Taoiseach knew but he said nothing because if he had, he would have gotten the Fianna Fáil equivalent of the concrete shoes, feeding with the small fishes on the back benches and he would not jeopardise his career by taking a moral stand. He knew and they knew that he knew. That is why to this day he is reticent to attack those found guilty of corruption and that is why he had to appoint Mr. Burke in 1997.
The Taoiseach’s alleged investigation of Mr. Burke before appointing him was a sham. He has a method of contriving to look in places where he knows there are no answers to the questions. He had his head stuck in the fragrant trees of north Dublin when he should have been lifting the manhole covers from which the real odour was coming. However, he decided to look in the wrong place so he would not get the answers.
Mr. Burke lied when availing of the tax amnesty in 1993. The Taoiseach introduced it and crooks and gangsters availed of it to launder their ill-gotten gains but they only declared a little of those gains, as did Mr. Burke. Is it not time to reopen that file, publish the names and let the people know exactly what went on? Finally, Mr. Burke, as Minister for Communications in 1987, handed over our natural resources and our fabulous oil and gas wells to multinational companies with an unprecedented deal of no royalties and no State stake. In view of him being paid left, right and centre for other favours by land rezoners and the rest, are we not right to be completely suspicious of that deal? Will the Taoiseach now order a re-examination of those terms? Will he refer the issue to the Mahon tribunal or another investigation and take back for the people the wealth that was given away by somebody who has now been convicted of corruption?
An Ceann Comhairle: The Deputy’s time has concluded.
The Taoiseach: The Deputy has made a statement of his views and there is no point in me trying to change any of them. As I said last week, the sentence imposed on Mr. Ray Burke on Monday of last week demonstrated that any citizen who breaks the law will face its full rigours. I am satisfied that justice has been done and been seen to be done. The people can, therefore, have faith in our system of justice. Of course, as Deputy Joe Higgins has reminded the House, the powers and rules of the tax amnesty and the penalties within that were where former Minister, Mr. Ray Burke, got unstuck. That is how he has ended where he is today.
Yes, I have been criticised for appointing Mr. Ray Burke to the Cabinet almost eight years ago. As I have said, my decision was based on what my bona fide view was then. If I knew then what I know now years later after all of the investigations, I would not have appointed him. Not only I, but several other Members congratulated him at that time. Even when he came before the House, people were prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. That is what happens.
With regard to all of the other matters raised by the Deputy, he obviously has much evidence. I have not read in the newspapers that he brought all that evidence to the Mahon or Moriarty tribunals, but I think he should do so.
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Sinn Féin): Just like the Taoiseach himself.
J. Higgins: This is extraordinary. The Taoiseach knows that everybody in the world except Mr. George Bush knew that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – everybody knew that. Everybody in the world knows that the Taoiseach knew what was going on. When Fianna Fail councillors could tell me ten, 12 or 15 years ago, with chapter and verse, what was going on – they were not involved in it but they knew the system of corruption of which Mr. Ray Burke was leader on Dublin County Council – the Taoiseach knew then. Will he tell us what he knew? Is he telling me that nobody from Fianna Fáil came to him in the 1980s or early 1990s and told him exactly the type of fixing that was going on between the speculators and his colleague Mr. Burke and others at that stage? That alone would have been a reason for not appointing Mr. Burke.
An Ceann Comhairle: The Deputy’s minute has concluded.
J. Higgins: The Taoiseach did not answer my question on the terms of the multinationals’ exploitation of our natural gas and the fabulous wealth on the Corrib field. The licences Mr. Burke issued were referred to as "frontier" licences. This is quite appropriate because the cowboys obviously wrote the terms as far as the people are concerned.
An Ceann Comhairle: The Deputy’s time has concluded.
J. Higgins: However, when the Taoiseach moves his camp west every summer to Galway he still entertains them in his tent. Will he order a re-examination of those terms in order to take our wealth back following decisions that were, at least, questionable?
The Taoiseach: When I knew and it became clear to this House, the Government brought forward proposals, on which the House collectively agreed, to set up investigations into all these matters many years ago. Those investigations have examined all of the files in all the areas where they had any doubts, connections or involvement. They continue to do that to this day.
Unfortunately, I did not know all of the things the Deputy knew with certainty back in the 1980s. Even in the 1990s when as Taoiseach I was trying to make preliminary inquiries, they were not matters the Garda knew either. I put all of that on the record here many years ago. Rather than being here berating me for these issues, the Deputy should explain why he knew with certainty all of these matters were going on and about which he never made any statement. To the best of my knowledge, the Deputy has still not done this. I know Deputy Ó Caoláin, if I was saying what Deputy Joe Higgins has been saying, would ask where was the evidence. I suppose that is what Deputy Higgins himself would ask also. However, he should at least have made people aware of this. I know he never made me aware of it, and neither did anybody else, unfortunately.