Ahern, Harney to assess Burke position

 

The Taoiseach and the Tanaiste will meet today to assess Mr Ray Burke's position in Government and as co-chairman of the Northern talks. Mr Ahern and Ms Harney will decide whether the Department of Justice's report into the latest passports disclosures should be referred to the Moriarty tribunal. Last night, they sought a copy of the report which is published in full in today's Irish Times.

Government sources have come to accept over the weekend that Mr Burke's future as Minister for Foreign Affairs is in serious doubt. "It is no longer a question of if, but when," one said. The two leaders are unlikely to decide immediately on his role because of the recent death of his brother.

The latest disclosures, in Saturday's Irish Times, are putting pressure, for the first time, on Government cohesion. Grassroots Progressive Democrats supporters are concerned about the party's loss of identity in coalition with Fianna Fail.

A spokesman for the Taoiseach confirmed last night that Mr Ahern had not informed Ms Harney he had conducted three inquiries into the granting of 11 passports to the wealthy Saudi Arabian banker, Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz, by Mr Burke in 1990.

The first inquiry was in late 1994 when Mr Ahern thought he was about to take over as Taoiseach from Mr Albert Reynolds.

The second was before the appointment of the present Government and the third was carried out since Mr Burke's appointment as Minister for Foreign Affairs.

A spokesman for the Tanaiste said she was not aware, before or after the formation of the Government, of such inquiries.

Sources close to Mr Ahern indicated that he had not seen the full report about the affair which was written by Mr Dermot Cole, an official of the Department of Justice. Mr Ahern had first received a "verbal" report on the matter and a "written synopsis" later. He did not tell Ms Harney about his inquiries because he thought they had no significance, sources said.

The first sign of difficulties between the Coalition parties came when Mr Des O'Malley gave an hour's notice of his withdrawal from RTE radio's Saturday View programme.

Later, the PD Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Ms Liz O'Donnell, who attends the Northern talks with Mr Burke, expressed "serious concern" and Ms Harney stated: "We would obviously be concerned if procedures were breached in relation to the issuing of passports."

The Fine Gael leader, Mr John Bruton, said yesterday that Mr Ahern had known about the passports affair and the £30,000 donation to Mr Burke before he appointed him. The Taoiseach had questions to answer "about his judgment, his state of knowledge and his level of frankness with the Tanaiste".

The Labour leader, Mr Dick Spring, said it would be in Mr Burke's interest "and, indeed, in the interest of the Government" for him to request the Taoiseach to reassign his role as leader of the Irish delegation in the Stormont talks until the end of the tribunals.

In an interview with Ireland on Sunday, Mr Ahern made clear, however, that should any tribunal find against Mr Burke he would lose his job. He said he had already told him "if you are found guilty of any impropriety you will not have to ring me to know what the position is".