A unique journalist – Renagh Holohan remembers Mike Burns

An Irishwoman’s Diary

The former taoiseach Enda Kenny and the British ambassador Paul Johnston were among the large group of friends, politicians, mandarins and colleagues who attended the memorial service in Dublin last Tuesday (March 1st) for the journalist Mike Burns.

Mike died suddenly exactly a year ago, and due to Covid did not have the funeral he deserved.

Paul Johnston told the lunch afterwards that although he was the only person in the room who did not know Mike, he now knew a lot about him. Mike was awarded an MBE by Queen Elizabeth in 2004 for services to Anglo-Irish relations.

It was an honour he much appreciated and, because he was born in England, he could receive it at Buckingham Palace rather than from the ambassador in Dublin.

When I mentioned that I was writing a piece about Mike, everyone was so ebullient that it is impossible, in the context of responsible journalism, to quote them all. Friendly, enthusiastic, helpful, joyful, inclusive, funny, companionable, knowledgeable and oh so generous were just a few of the remarks that summed him up. Some said he was one of a kind. He was really more a kind of one. He was unique.

I first met Mike in London in the 1980s and although we were not there at the same time we covered the same beat – Westminster and Irish society and affairs. When I returned to London later to cover a temporary vacancy I soon discovered the astonishing breadth of Mike's contacts, which ranged in all directions from far-left to High Tory. Indeed Maurice Manning told the gathering at Haddington Road church how Mike once had breakfast cooked for him by Margaret Thatcher in the Downing Street flat, when he and her press secretary Bernard Ingham rolled in after a night on the town. And it wasn't only politicians who held him in high esteem. He was on first-name terms with all the Westminster staff which made his, and my, life a lot easier.

Although he was born in England in 1937, his family returned to live on a farm near Ballintubber, Co Roscommon, when he was a child. As Maurice said in his address, Mike remained very attached to Roscommon but not attached enough to go back and live there. He started in journalism in the west of Ireland and later moved to work in Dublin and on the tabloids in England, where he often said he honed his craft. He spent most of his working life with RTÉ and travelled the world.

The story is often told of how he and his great friend and colleague Sean Duignan were sent by RTÉ for six weeks to the US. As they were about to board the plane at Shannon, both their names were announced, asking them to lift the nearest red telephone. Diggy was about to do so, but Mike, sensing what it might be, grabbed Diggy's coat and told him to keep walking. They got on the plane and when they arrived they discovered that RTÉ had recosted the trip and wanted to recall them. Too late now.

His friend the journalist Tim Ryan, who with Maurice Manning organised the memorial service, wrote in the service booklet that he had acquired Mike's amazing contacts book which at one stage was the envy of every journalist in Dublin. "I was always honoured to be Mike Burns's apprentice and I learned a lot from the Master, including this useful tip, 'Tim, when you go to a hotel, always tip the porter when checking in, not out, to ensure good service'."

It was unsurprising then that on retirement from RTÉ Mike took over the press office for the slightly obscure British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body. It didn't stay obscure for long. The Irish and British civil servants who ran the Body might have been responsible for inviting politicians from the several parliaments on these islands (Leinster House, Stormont, Westminster, Scotland, Wales, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man) and setting the agenda but it was Mike who, while officially only in charge of the press, brought everyone together. The Body, as a slightly informal gathering of backbenchers, aimed to promote mutual understanding during two days of debate and two nights of conviviality in distinguished locations throughout these islands. In my recollection the Northern Ireland unionists were the only refuseniks.

For the press, who, thanks to Mike, were usually allowed bring an "accompanying person", the Body, provided good political stories, which frequently made headlines. It also brought us to places not normally visited. We sat at the coffin-shaped cabinet table in No 10 where we were greeted by John Major and later by Tony Blair; we sat in the chamber of the then newly opened Scottish parliament in Edinburgh; we were entertained by one of the Marlboroughs at Blenheim Palace and by one of the Cecils at Hatfield House, where we were shown a pair of gloves belonging to Queen Elizabeth 1 who spent much of her youth there.

There were always wonderful and interesting times with Mike. One of his favourite phrases was “Do you take a social drink?” It led him into many unforeseen and often hilarious adventures. I raise my glass to him.