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Ex-IRA man, anti-drugs campaigner, occasional Joe Dolan impersonator: Meet the Lord Mayor

Christy Burke’s been the headlines recently for his comments about the British royal family. He sat down at the Mansion House this week for a chat about his past, and his plans for the next 12 months…

BY THE END of his term in 12 months’ time, Dublin’s new Lord Mayor will have been a councillor for 30 years, having won his first election in the north inner city in 1985.

The Mansion House’s newest resident is well known in the capital for his campaign work on the issues of drugs and homelessness, and has promised to make tackling the homeless crisis a priority for his term as First Citizen.

A long time member of Sinn Féin, Christy Burke resigned from the party three days after the local elections in 2009, and now serves as an independent.

He spent time in prison for IRA membership during the 1970s, when he says he was “an active Republican”, and later became involved in Dublin’s ‘Concerned Parents Against Drugs’ movement in the early eighties.

Christy Burke at the Mansion House this week.

He’s also been in the news in the last few days over his comments suggesting the British royals shouldn’t be asked to attend the 1916 anniversary events in two years’ time.

Burke, who describes himself as a “home alone” mayor, sat down with TheJournal.ie at the Mansion House this week to discuss the challenges facing the council, the drug problem in the city (which he says is now worse than it was in the 1980s) and how he once beat 22 other contestants in a competition for Joe Dolan impersonators.

The armed struggle… 

Burke and current Deputy Lord Mayor, Sinn Féin’s Larry O’Toole, protest Princess Anne’s opening of the British Embassy in Dublin in 1996 [Photocall Ireland].

Burke describes the 18 months or so he spent in prison as being “very educational” and “a college of knowledge”.

Initially sentenced for IRA membership, he was sent first to Mountjoy in Dublin, before being transferred to Portlaoise.

“I completed that jail term. I was 18 days out and I was rearrested again for membership of the IRA and possession of firearms.

“The firearms charges were dropped. And then I got a six month sentence for lowering a tricolour I think at a Blood Sunday event in the Garden of Remembrance.

So, yeah… I was an active Republican.

Pressed on why his time in prison was so educational, Burke says the main lesson he learned was “don’t end up in prison”.

Hopefully nobody will have to do the things that I and many more before me and after me have done in relation to a republican struggle.

The city’s drugs problems…

The Lord Mayor contends the drug problem being experienced in Dublin is, in fact, far worse than it was more than three decades ago, when he first took an interest in the issue.

While still an IRA volunteer, Burke became involved in the ‘Concerned Parents Against Drugs’ movement, which engaged in direct tactics like confronting dealers and staging patrols of areas where pushers were active.

The movement was controversial at the time, and was often depicted in the media as being little more than a front for the IRA.

But Burke insists that his republican activities had no bearing on his work with CPAD, saying that when he held his first meeting with a group of mothers from the Hardwicke Street flats, they told him “we don’t care if you’re Paisley. We need help”.

A meeting of CAPD [Screengrab: Meeting Room]

“I went over and met a group of women. They said ‘Christy, our sons and our daughters are on heroin. There’s fellas coming in here an selling it to them. They have muscle. We’re afraid they’ll shoot us’.

“I said ‘look, I’m caught up in the struggle in the north of Ireland and I haven’t got time’… And they pleaded with me.

He says the health service at the time had no strategy in place to deal with the problem and the “cops hadn’t got a clue”

“I said ‘I’ll help out’ … We then proceeded that night to go to three drug dealers that were resident in the flats that were known to us.

“We asked them to cease and said they were welcome to stay. If they didn’t cease that we would ask them to leave.

I think two of them agreed to stay. One didn’t and they were forced to leave by the community — not by the IRA or anybody else.

Burke says the drug problem in the city is “now worse out there than it was in the eighties” and the criminals behind it far more sophisticated. But there’s unlikely to be much of a concerted effort to tackle the problem, he says, as there’s “no votes” in the issue.

That’s why politicians don’t kick in.

He contends the proper way to tackle the issue would be to set up ”indoor residential units” catering for hundreds of people at a time, and to launch a two year multi-agency programme aimed at rehabilitating drug users.

“Give them after-care, give them hope. Let the private sector come in and give them apprenticeships.

There’s no hopeless cases.

On leaving Sinn Féin…

Source: Graham Hughes/Photocall Ireland!

Burke, alongside Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald and Gerry Adams.

After decades of service, Burke sensationally left Sinn Féin just three days after the 2009 local elections — much the consternation of the party establishment in the city.

Later, he was publicly critical of the party leadership, saying senior personnel had stopped listening to grassroots members.

“That’s my prerogative. Nobody owns Christy Burke,” he says of the parting-of-ways.

“I left because I wanted an independent conscience. I wanted to vote with my conscience. I didn’t want to be under a party whip.

“I gave 41 years of my life the Republican movement, more than anybody probably in the city, and therefore I wanted to go as an independent.

If you’re looking for the dirty washing that went on between them and I, I’m not giving it to you because I’m an honourable guy.

Source: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Campaigning under the Sinn Féin banner in 2009. 

Regarding the new wave of young Sinn Féin councillors, TDs and MEPS, he says that he had always wanted the party to progress politically “and today it’s at that level”.

“I think it’s great that there was a party machine that had young men and women who were ready to go before the electorate and a lot of them got elected in fairness. I think yes — that’s progress, that’s great.

But I was the lone ranger of Sinn Féin during very difficult times — during Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act, when I couldn’t speak to a journalist.

“When I stood up the chamber to speak I’d be told to sit down and that I was an IRA supporter. When I went to move a motion it would fall because the late Deputy [Tony] Gregory wouldn’t be in the house and therefore nobody would second it.

“So I’ve been there through the battle.”

On the next five years… 

Source: ClontarfMedia Dublin/YouTube

Sinn Féín are the largest party in the council in the wake of last month’s local elections, with 16 of the 63 seats. They’ve entered into a coalition with Labour, the Greens and 11 independents for the authority’s five years term.

Last week, Cork County Council became the first local authority in the country to commit to cutting the Local Property Tax by 15 per cent — an issue Sinn Féin in particular made one of the main points of its campaign in the run up to polling day.

So how long before we see progress, in the Lord Mayor’s view?

“I’m opposed to a property tax and I voted against it.”

“Now it’s lumped in to Dublin City Council and every other local authority.

Burke says he hopes councillors from different parties don’t “start playing games” on the issue and “act as mature men and women and cooperate”.

I will vote for anything that’s going to ease the pain of people. If I can reduce it by 15 per cent I will reduce it.

Luke…

Burke has pledged to make tackling homelessness the main priority of his 12 month term in the Mansion House.

There’s also the small matter of a statue for Dubliners legend Luke Kelly. It’s something he’s been calling for for the last decade, and councillors finally backed a proposal to make funding available last year.

So will it happen?

“He deserves it. Luke deserves it,” Burke insists. “And if it costs 80 grand…

“Let’s get the statue. The statue was agreed by motion… I am going to now going to pursue this with the family. We’re hoping to get the Docklands, the City Council, Dublin Port and anybody else who wants to contribute to put together the the 80 grand or however much it costs.

Whatever it is, Luke deserves it. We need to do it.

Luke Kelly

That Joe Dolan story… 

(This came up in the context of the Luke Kelly statue, in case you’re wondering…)

“They were talking about a competition to keep his name going in the Mullingar Festival.

“I entered to sing on the radio. Without a band I sang. They said ‘Jaysus, you’re great, you’re going’.

“I got invited. There was a panel of adjudicators. I went down to the Greville Arms. The place was jammed. 22 contestants, and I won.

They gave me a recording. Done the recording. Got the CDs. Sold them all Christmas week. Got a grand or two.

“Every penny that was raised from the CDs was donated to a hospital in south Dublin. They were delighted.

Finally, the personal stuff… 

Burke describes himself as a “home alone mayor”.

Divorced for the last 30 years, he never remarried and says he doesn’t plan to live in the Mansion House — though he may crash there occasionally on working days.

He says the digs aren’t too bad “but don’t worry, there’s no flat-screens or anything”.

Read: Mayor says he didn’t mean any offence when suggesting blocking royals from 1916 events

Read: Who is your new local councillor? Here’s a list of everyone elected so far

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