One of the more accomplished diplomats in recent history

Martin Burke obituary: his career involved hard and dangerous work in the North


Martin Burke

Born: 28th July, 1950

Died: 28th June, 2018

The career of Martin Burke, who represented this country at the highest level in a total of eight countries before his retirement in 2015, amounted to one of the more accomplished diplomatic careers in Ireland’s recent history.

Burke, who has died aged 67, was, according to his former colleague Dáithí O’Ceallaigh (a former Irish ambassador to the UK), “very gregarious, always good company and always in good humour” – qualities which were especially useful in a crucial earlier part of his career, as a counsellor in the Anglo-Irish Division (Aid) of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) dealing with the dangerous situation in Northern Ireland from 1980 to 1985, including the period of the IRA’s hunger strikes.

In revealing comments to The Irish Times this week, O’Ceallaigh spoke of a little known aspect of the work of the division at that time, known in the DFA as the “two Travellers”, two Irish diplomats who spent years apiece travelling in the North making contacts with people from both the Nationalist and Unionist communities. Starting in the 1970s, this involved both himself and Burke in the early 1980s.

O’Ceallaigh described how “after Garret FitzGerald took office, from 1982 onwards, especially, there was a very determined effort made to find out what the problems were” when it came to blockages to peace, a process that had as its major consequence the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985.

He added that Martin Burke’s role in this “was very hard, and very dangerous work”, adding that while his own contacts were mostly with the Nationalist community, Burke’s were largely with the Unionist community, and included many meetings with, among others, Peter Robinson of the Democratic Unionist Party, and Rev Martin Smyth of the Orange Order.

This was at a time when the Loyalist paramilitaries were very active and, arguably, would have had little compunction in targeting an official of the Irish Government if they had known what was going on.

Trust in judgment

It was some measure of the trust in his maturity and judgment held by the administrations of both Charles Haughey and FitzGerald that Burke was entrusted with this extraordinarily delicate work, for at the time he was aged only in his early 30s, having joined the civil service straight from school at Dublin’s Marian College in 1968.

Clearly naturally talented, and, although no linguist, with a strong command of Irish, he found himself working within three years at the private office of the then minister for finance, George Colley, who conducted his business with civil servants through Irish.

At the time, with membership of the European Union fast approaching, the government was strongly in need of new talent for the DFA, and aged just 21 and with no university degree (although he did study for and take the Diploma in Public Administration), Burke was appointed a third secretary in 1971 at the department.

A significant part of his work in the 1970s, also in the Aid (1974-1977), was his involvement with helping to manage the case which the Irish government took against the UK at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg over the treatment of prisoners in the North, which eventually resulted in a finding that the British authorities had used “inhumane and degrading treatment” of some of those imprisoned.

His former diplomatic colleague, Margaret Hennessy, speaking at Burke’s funeral in Dublin last month, told the congregation that this was “gruelling work, involving lengthy periods away from home, in fraught and delicate circumstances”, at the hearings of the case, which were held in Stavanger, Norway.

Rapid ascent

His ascent thereafter was rapid, including time spent at the Irish embassy in the Netherlands (1977-1980) and, from 1985, what his widow, Mary Duggan Burke (a fellow civil servant; the couple married in 1972), describes as “his favourite” job, four years as counsellor at the embassy in Washington, DC.

This was another crucial period of success for Burke, working closely with Irish-American politicians including Senator Ted Kennedy, Tip O’Neill, and, especially, former congressman Brian Donnelly, both on the early stages of the Peace Process in Northern Ireland, and the programme of US visas for Irish citizens working or wishing to work in the US which became famous as the “Donnelly” visas. This, Mary Duggan Burke recalls, “meant so much to him [Martin]”, and was something on which “he worked so hard”.

His next appointment, as ambassador to Australia (accredited also to New Zealand and Indonesia) was perhaps a recognition of Burke’s talents. His period in Canberra (1989-1995) saw him organise the official visit of former president Mary Robinson to Australia and New Zealand in 1992.

Burke was appointed ambassador to Sweden in 1995. This coincided with the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Seamus Heaney that autumn which meant that, as ambassador of a country with one of its citizens as a Laureate, he and Mary Duggan Burke attended the Nobel Prize banquet at Stockholm’s iconic Town Hall. Burke’s time in Sweden also coincided with former president Robinson’s official visit there in 1997, the first-ever visit by an Irish president to that country.

The remainder of Burke’s career was also spent abroad, in Canada (accredited also to Jamaica)(2001-2006), Luxembourg (2006-2010) and finally Switzerland from 2010.

Martin Burke was the son of a Garda, also Martin, from Dunmore, Co Kilkenny, and Una (nee Murphy), from Blackrock, Co Dublin, where her husband was based for his whole career. The diplomat is survived by Mary, their children Ronan, Robert and Nicola, and by his brother, James. A brother, William, predeceased him.