The Taoiseach said that before appointing Mr Burke as Foreign Affairs Minister he consulted Garda Commissioner Pat Byrne about allegations of wrongdoing in the planning process, but the Commissioner said Garda investigations found nothing untoward.
“In the light of what I was told by him in respect of Ray Burke and planning matters, my assessment was confirmed that the rumours relating to him were unsubstantiated. I was therefore satisfied to proceed with his appointment.”
Last night, the Garda Press Office said the Commissioner would not be commenting on Mr Ahern’s assertions. Launching a robust defence in the Dáil yesterday of his handling of Mr Burke’s appointment, the Taoiseach attempted to close the affair which arose from the fallout of the Flood Tribunal report.
Responding to criticism of his failure to interview whistle-blower James Gogarty prior to Mr Burke’s appointment, Mr Ahern said this would not have been prudent or proper as, at that time, the former JMSE boss was refusing to sign any statement for the Gardaí. Sounding a word of caution, Mr Ahern said he was confining his remarks as comments in the Dáil could prejudice any court cases arising from criminal investigations into matters covered by the Flood Tribunal.
“I do not believe that the people would thank me or this House if, in the heat of debate, remarks were made which resulted in a prosecution being thwarted,” he said.
According to opposition parties, Mr Ahern is still dodging the relevant questions and his statement failed to provide the required answers. Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny said the Taoiseach was now hiding behind the Gardaí. It was well known the Gardaí probed allegations of planning corruption with no resulting prosecutions.
“For the Taoiseach to use this fact in his defence is an abdication of his own constitutional duty to give high office to those who are beyond reproach. Given the number of warnings which he received about Ray Burke, and the fact that the donor of the known contribution was denying making it, it is impossible for the Taoiseach to have believed that Ray Burke was in this category,” he said.
Labour frontbench spokesperson Joan Burton said Mr Burke’s pension from his career in politics should be taken away from him following Justice Feargus Flood’s finding that he received corrupt payments.
Oil and gas exploration licences negotiated and granted by Ray Burke, when he was Minister for Energy and Communications, should now be fully investigated, according to Sinn Féin.
SF TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin said changes brought in by Mr Burke in September 1987 governing the granting of exploration licences were of immense benefit to the oil companies. The State’s 50% stake in any discovery was abolished, royalties were wiped out and companies allowed to write off earnings against tax.