The meter on Burke’s legal bill runs on

RAY BURKE will probably welcome the fact that neither he nor his legal team were required to attend Dublin Castle yesterday to hear the Planning Tribunal chairman, Judge Alan Mahon, issue a ruling that will see him out of pocket for some considerable time.

It is likely to be the only consolation that the former TD can derive from the latest ignominy since the Tribunal deemed him a corrupt politician in a landmark report published two years ago.

In fairness, the decision can hardly come as a surprise to the one-time Fianna Fáil bigwig, who has seen his reputation disintegrate since the inquiry first began examining allegations of his involvement in planning corruption back in 1997.

In deciding that Burke must pay his own €10.5 million legal bill, Judge Mahon set out a clear warning to 15 other parties who were judged by former Tribunal chairman, Mr Justice Feargus Flood, to have obstructed the inquiry that they will, in all likelihood, have to fund their seven-figure legal bills from their own resources.

Builders Tom Brennan and Joe McGowan, who gave Burke a series of corrupt payments in the 1980s, will be the first to learn if they too must foot their own €2.66m legal costs when Judge Mahon issues a similar ruling on their application this morning.

In contrast, yesterday’s decision will provide welcome news for taxpayers who have grown sceptical over the years about the long-winded nature of public inquiries and the apparent speed with which they create legal millionaires compared to getting at the truth.

For people like Burke to ask the taxpayer to meet their legal costs would have proved the last straw had they succeeded.

That scenario is now virtually impossible given that yesterday’s ruling will act as a precedent for a raft of similar decisions over the coming months.

For many Tribunal watchers, there was also something particularly unsavoury in hearing Burke’s lawyers plead last July that their client was not a wealthy man, given he has a combined ministerial and TD pension worth around €80,000 per annum.

However, Burke is left facing further financial ruin, although the real hardship may actually rest with his lawyers, accountants and other advisors who handled his dealings with the inquiry over the past seven years.

(In truth, many parties usually reach an agreement with their legal team about the level of fees in the event that their costs are not met by the State).

However, Burke still has one final throw of the dice as he and several other parties judged to have obstructed the inquiry have separately started High Court proceedings to challenge the power of the Tribunal to make them pay their own legal costs. It is understood they will question the constitutionality of legislation introduced by the Government earlier this year.

Burke may note the experiences former party colleague, Liam Lawlor, with the Tribunal and decide to cut his losses and discontinue the case in light of yesterday’s findings.

Lawlor, who was jailed three times for failing to co-operate with the inquiry, has been sued by one of his former lawyers over unpaid bills and has subsequently been forced to represent himself legally.

Even more worryingly for Burke, yesterday’s decision made no reference to the recognised power of the Tribunal to compel parties who hindered its work to pay for portions of the cost of the inquiry itself.

Yesterday’s forceful ruling will have left little doubt that the metre on Burke’s already sizeable legal bill has not stopped running yet.

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