THOUGH Colm Burke has led Fine Gael’s Cork North-Central general election ticket for 18 months, the shadow of his predecessor is still an issue on the doors.
When Dara Murphy resigned from the Dáil late last year — having already said he wouldn’t be running in the next election — it opened up a huge controversy over his attendance in Dáil Éireann, or lack thereof in recent years.
The scandal has damaged Fine Gael on the northside, but Mr Burke said that when the issue comes up, his reaction is simple: He’s been raising this issue for five years.
“I was kept off the ticket in 2015. I fought to get on the ticket then because I was aware that constituency work wasn’t being done.
“I firmly believe I’ve been proven right,” he said.
“It was extremely disappointing that that person was a member of Fine Gael and gave a commitment to serve the constituency, to deal with issues, whether it’s housing, healthcare, or infrastructure development. None of that was done.”
Mr Burke’s concerns and his call to be added to the ticket fell on deaf ears, however.
“I was advised that I’d be put on the ticket if I could identify a female candidate, which I did,” he said. “They did an opinion poll that showed I was way ahead of Dara Murphy.
“They then decided that because there were a lot of my number twos coming back to the other two candidates, that they wouldn’t put me on the ticket.
“I was extremely disappointed. A lot of people wanted me to walk away from politics at that stage.”
Rather than walking away, he maintained his campaign to get on the ticket, and ultimately won a selection convention when Mr Murphy signalled his exit from electoral politics in the summer of 2018.
Though he praised Mr Murphy for his work as Minister of State for Europe, he said that he was disappointed with the gap in Dáil work.
“I’m disappointed that someone got elected to represent the constituency and that representation did not take place and the backup support to constituents was not provided, even though funding was provided to him,” he said.
After years of being prevented from getting on the Fine Gael ticket, Mr Burke is now closer to the Dáil then ever.
In the recent by-election, he had a strong second place finish on first preferences, though he was pushed into third place on transfers.
That result still puts him in a strong position to hold the seat in Cork North-Central, where Fine Gael has always had at least one seat.
As a senator, he has had an undeniably successful career. In the last 25 years, only about 30 successful pieces of legislation have been achieved by the opposition, backbenchers, and senators.
Two of those were Mr Burke’s — a bill assisting families of missing persons to deal with their estates, and a bill requiring medical practitioners to have liability insurance, which was folded into Government-driven legislation.
So why does he want to leave the Seanad for the Dáil?
“I’m not taking from the role of senator,” he said. It’s been extremely successful from my point of view. I have got legislation through. I have had issues dealt with. I’ve also been a member of the health committee.”
“But you don’t have the same access to ministers as a senator. You don’t have the same access to departments. As a TD, you can put down questions constantly. I can’t do that as a senator. You have more influence.”
Though he served in the Seanad and not the Dáil, Mr Burke still has to answer for Fine Gael’s record after nine years in government.
He’s well known for his encyclopaedic knowledge of facts and figures, and thatmeans questions and critiques of Fine Gael are met with a wall of statistics.
Though he concedes that more has to be done, and that people are frustrated on the doors, he believes that the figures speak for themselves.
“In 2012, we said we’d create a hundred thousand jobs and people laughed at us,” he said. “In the last four or five years alone, there’s an extra 400,000 people working in this country.”
He added that the Government has increased the minimum wage, the average industrial wage has gone up, and there’s been investment in public services like the many schools all over the country — including many on the northside — that have been upgraded from prefabs inherited from Fianna Fáil to new builds with more staff and resources under Fine Gael.
“We have a lot of work to do, but the one big change we have in five or eight years is that there is now a surplus of taxation coming in and it’s about managing that surplus and providing for healthcare and housing and education,” he said.
However, for many people, this election is a referendum on Fine Gael’s record on two key issues, healthcare and housing.
Mr Burke said that housing is heading in the right direction, and opposition promises that more could be done are unrealistic.
“I think the building industry is working flat out. They’re finding it difficult to get people, whether it’s electricians, plumbers, blocklayers,” he said.
He added that financing is also an issue, with banks unwilling to invest in housing after the crash, leaving developers only being drip-fed credit to build.
He said that the Government does need to look at what it can do to speed up development — adjusting regulations to reduce costs while maintaining standards and examining modular building for social housing, for example — but still sees the trend going in the right direction.
“We are making progress. The question is can we speed up that process.
“As I said, people laughed at us and said ‘you’re not going to create 100,000 jobs’. We did, and we created a lot more than we even envisaged ourselves. We can do the same with housing.
“We have gone up to 21,000 houses being built last year. We need to bring that up to 30,000 and 35,000, but the good thing is more houses are being built now than before.
“Last year, we had planning permissions granted for over 30,000 residential units. The important thing now is that the services are made available so those units can be built. I’m talking about Irish Water providing the water and sewerage connections, local authorities providing the roads.
“We are moving forward with housing. We’ll probably reach 24,000 houses being built in 2020, and by 2021 we’ll be reaching 27,000.
“It’s a gradual process,” he said.
Healthcare is a key issue for voters, and it’s a key issue for Mr Burke too. As a member of the Oireachtas Health Committee, he’s been involved in crucial debates about the future of healthcare in recent years.
His biggest goal is to get a new hospital in Cork to deal with elective surgeries, taking the pressure off Cork University Hospital and the Mercy University Hospital.
The HSE has sent a report on the hospital to the Government, and a Sláintecare committee is to meet in the coming days to talk about what might be needed in the hospital.
The slow progress is frustrating, he said, but he is optimistic that progress is happening.
“There’s been no new hospitals built in the last 30 years.
“Fianna Fáil was there for 14 years, Kathleen Lynch )former Cork North-Central Labour TD) was in the department for five years, and at no point was it ever talked about.
“I’ve been at the forefront of that because I’ve seen the population increase. We’re going to have a huge increase in population in Cork. We are now 542,000, within the next four to five years we’ll be over 600,000 in the city and county. We’ve got to get on with it,” he said.
The real hold-up is choosing a location, he said. His preference is for Glanmire, but there is still no word on when a site will be chosen.
“If we started in the morning, the design would probably take 12 months. Going through the planning process would take another 12-18 months. Then the tender process would take another 6-8 months.
“At the very earliest, from identifying the site to laying the foundation will be three years. So we need to get on with this.
“That’s why I want to get elected, to push through this project and see it through. I don’t want to spend 25 years debating this issue, I just want to get on with it,” he said.