THE photograph of him in the current Dublin Port Company yearbook . . . attired in a casual batik-style shirt and a hard hat, his smile for the camera lit by the mega-wattage sunshine of Banda Aceh . . . could not provide a starker contrast with the present travails of Joe Burke. That occasion was the ceremonial laying of the foundation stone for a community centre, funded by the Irish semistate company, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra on 7 November 2006. Fifteen months later, mystery shrouds his whereabouts and his state of health.

The last public sighting of the taoiseach's friend was on 2 January, when he was found slumped over the steering wheel of his trademark top-ofthe-range Mercedes car in Ringsend, Dublin, and was taken to St Vincent's Hospital. That was the day after a woman alleged to gardai that the Donegal native had sexually assaulted her in a 3m house in Malahide owned by another member of the so-called Drumcondra Mafia, Barry English. Burke has remained in an unidentified hospital in south Dublin and has been unavailable for interview by gardai investigating the complaint against him.

It is the second complaint of sexual assault made against him to gardai in four years. Sources close to the 58-year-old former Dublin city councillor have been anonymously quoted in the media saying he is seriously ill, echoing a similar assertion by Bertie Ahern during his recent visit to South Africa.

Last Thursday morning, the directors of Dublin Port Company assembled for their monthly meeting at Alexander Road but the chairman's reserved parking space in the car park and his seat at the table were vacant. Contrary to expectations that Burke's resignation would be tendered, his indisposition was not even discussed by his fellow board members, who comprise six state appointees, three elected members of Dublin city council and two employees of Dublin Port Company. The directors were advised not to talk to journalists afterwards, compounding the impression of a highly secretive company with little accountability to its owners, the citizens of Ireland.

Freedom of Information
Dublin Port Company, unlike its semi-state neighbour, the Dublin Docklands Authority, and most other state bodies, is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act and therefore has no statutory obligation to provide certain information about itself. A spokesman for the Department of Transport and Marine was unable to explain why this is so. When the Sunday Tribune requested information about directors' fees, expenses and overseas trips two weeks ago, Dublin Port Company's public relations manager, Brenda Daly, who is a worker/director, replied: "Dublin Port Company does not disclose directors' fees and expensesf [or] details of travel undertaken by its directors as part of the ongoing development of Ireland's biggest port." Follow-up enquiries to the Department elicited the information that the chairman's current fee, as approved by government, is 24,000, increased from 15,237 in 2006. Ordinary directors get 14,000, increased from 10,158 in 2006.

Dublin Port was incorporated as a limited liability company in 1997, the minister for the marine (Noel Dempsey at present) being its sole shareholder on behalf of the state. In the year to the end of December 2006, it turned over more than 66m worth of business and disclosed total assets of almost 220m but it is the hope value of the land it controls that makes the capital's port a land grabber's paradise. The estimated worth of the company's 668 acres is in excess of 20bn, having been enhanced by the construction of the Port Tunnel. If the company's plans to extend the port towards Dublin Bay come to fruition, thereby freeing up existing port lands closer to the city, it will unleash a veritable builders' bonanza.

Some of the country's richest property developers are already in situ. Former Fianna Fail Clare county councillor Bernard McNamara (whose wife, ex-nurse Moira, was appointed to Tourism Ireland last December) owns the old 25 acre Irish Glass Bottle site at Poolbeg in partnership with the Dublin Docklands Development Authority and private investors' manager Derek Quinlan. Between 50,000 and 80,000 people are expected to live there when the development is complete, giving it an estimated value of 1.8bn. Zoe Developments' Liam Carroll's interest in taking over ICG, mother company of Irish Ferries, is widely attributed to its 30-acre lease in the port. Another company, Philip Lynch's One51, which has a significant shareholding in both ICG and NTR (National Toll Roads), bought Greenore harbour in Co Louth in partnership with Dublin Port Company.

The company's board approved the sale by tender of Balbriggan and Skerries harbours in March 2004 but it was overruled by ministerial order on the eve of the tender's deadline after a coterie of cross-party TDs in north Dublin protested. After behind-the-scenes representations were made to the government, the harbours were handed over to Fingal county council by order of the then minister, Dermot Ahern, under Section 88 of the Harbours Act 1996.

Four companies out of business
Presiding over this vastly lucrative monopoly board is Joe Burke, whose own pub-renovation company, J&H Burke & Son Builders Ltd, went into liquidation last year, having been incorporated in 1995 and filed its last accounts for 2003.

It was the fourth of his companies to cease trading. At present, he holds three company directorships: his state-appointed chairmanship of Dublin Port Company since 2002; a concomitant seat on East-Link Ltd, the 20,000 vehicles a-day toll bridge subsidiary of NTR, and Ireland's first public-private partnership project; and Renore Limited, the company that owns Greenore. In 2002, Dublin Port Company and the Irish Agricultural Wholesale Society Ltd (IAWS), the forerunner of the One51 Group, established a 50-50 joint venture to acquire the shares of Greenore Port Company, with ministerial approval.

In a notice of change of directors filed in June 2006 for J&H Burke & Son Builders, "National Toll Roads" is included in a list of Joe Burke's directorships. Whether this is a genuine error or a gilding of the lily is debatable but one of the minor perks for a director of its subsidiary, EastLink, which is jointly owned by Dublin Port Company, is the allocation of an Eazy Pass card for crossing the toll bridge.

The total bill for remuneration of Dublin Port Company's 11 directors in 2006, according to its annual report, came to nearly 600,000. This included 176,000 in fees for services, 364,000 for other unspecified services and 57,000 in pension contributions. No figure is available for directors' travel allowances or expenses. One of the first overseas trips Joe Burke made as chairman of Dublin Port was to Miami for the annual Seatrade Cruise Shipping Conference. During that trip, a leisure shipping company invited him on a cruise to the Bahamas. Other trips are believed to have included New Zealand and Indonesia, though the absence of information from the company has made it impossible to establish this as fact. Dublin Port Company signed a 600m agreement in October 2006 to develop and manage the Sabang Hub International Port in Sumatra in its first overseas project.

Joe Burke is scheduled to give evidence to the Mahon tribunal sometime after 22 February in relation to an allegation by retired Luton-based developer Tom Gilmartin that Burke, while a Fianna Fail councillor, demanded IR£50,000 from him.

'Shockingly generous'
Described by one source as "a guy who can be shockingly generous, " he is said to have wept when he lost his council seat after just one term.

In that time, he occasionally deputised for his friend, Bertie Ahern, when the latter was Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1987. The taoiseach, who famously makes no apologies for giving his friends state jobs, reappointed Burke to Dublin Port Company after last year's election.

A trustee of St Luke's, Ahern's constituency office in Drumcondra, and a donor to the IR£16,500 dig-out for the minister for finance in 1993, Burke likes to display the trappings of his success. He wears suits from Louis Copeland, sports an eye-catching Rolex watch and likes to travel first class. Separated from his wife and teenage sweetheart, the father of two adult children is romantically involved with Fianna Fail's Maria Corrigan, one of the taoiseach's 11 nominees to the Seanad and a likely general election candidate in Dublin South next time out.

Burke's absence from Dublin Port for the past month has excited remarkably scant public comment. Though he is the subject of a second garda investigation, there have been no suggestions that he should resign from the semi-state company and it has been reported that minister Noel Dempsey has not asked him to step aside.

The strategic importance of the capital's port was highlighted in last year's general election when the Fianna Fail manifesto promised to "undertake a comprehensive study of the role of Dublin Port taking account of location, overall ports policy, transport policy, urban development and the National Spatial Strategy."

More than 30 million tonnes of cargo transits the port annually and 75 cruise ships visit Dublin, injecting 50 million into the national economy.

Such activity begs the question: how much longer can the chairman's seat remain empty?