Ammi Burke does not come across as one interested in sympathy, still less advice. Nonetheless, at this moment, to any outside observer, she is at a pivotal juncture with much to lose – more, perhaps, than any other member of her family.
While agitation and a tendency to burn their bridges when they come to them seems to be the modus operandi of the Burke family, her case is different: for her there is a danger of serious self-sabotage.
Besides, the other Burke siblings are not doing badly. Elijah had a famous victory for home schoolers in his challenge to being excluded from the 2020 Leaving Cert calculated grade system.
Enoch came close to a win when the High Court’s Mr Justice Conor Dignam said he would grant an injunction restraining the school disciplinary hearing if he agreed to obey court orders to stay away from the school. He wouldn’t. If there is a fiery anger in Enoch, the public perception is of icy self-containment. There may even be a turning tide – some in the legal profession believe he has a case on the manner of his dismissal.
There is a power in these consistent little victories – which underlines why Ammi Burke’s situation is, for the family, the more worrying.
For some time now, the Burke family has exerted a fascination on the Irish public. News bulletins light up like a scene from a Fellini film when the family stride out, impeccably groomed with the disciplined glamour of neo-realism: the pallor of Ammi’s brow subliminally signalling gravity. Indeed, prior to these legal wars of attrition, with their campus campaigns against marriage equality and abortion, the one-third of the population who share the Burkes’ views on these issues might have seen them as outliers, keeping the larger group in check.
But the clamour from Castlebar grows tedious. The remains of their days in court are increasingly predictable – disarray, resistance, sometimes custody. Some of the Burke siblings may engage in disruptive behaviour in court and take the consequences, but for Ammi Burke, a qualified solicitor, it could be momentous.
There was real feeling for her when she first went to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) in 2021, a clearly talented young solicitor, working long hours. The aborting of that hearing, for legal reasons outside anyone’s control, was unfortunate. Her case was potentially totemic for young solicitors, especially women, many of whom feel overworked and exploited.
The recent Law Society study Dignity Matters had more than twice as many female as male respondents to the survey. This indicates an underlying collective anxiety. There may be young women solicitors – self-evidently silent – who felt she had given them a voice. Their disappointment that the case was never actually heard still resonates.
Now that voice seems to have adopted a stridency which bespeaks intolerance. Challenging those more powerful than oneself is invariably frustrating. But the adoption of vociferous victim status is usually counterproductive.
The challenge always is not to allow a burning sense of injustice to distort perception. But what construction, other than self-sabotage, can be put on the strategy adopted at the judicial review of her wrongful dismissal case?
Ammi was not always thus. On that fateful day at the WRC in March of last year – as she pleaded for the emails which would reveal her working hours and asked for two witnesses from her former employer, Arthur Cox – she turned to her mother, who had taken up a chant of “Criminals, criminals” and said: “He [the adjudication officer] is asking you to be silent.”
What has happened, one year later, to that voice? The voice of a woman making her own case?
Was it the characterisation of her family as “a travelling circus” by Peter Ward, counsel for Arthur Cox, that entered her soul like iron?
That she was profoundly perturbed at the reflection on her family was evident and she spoke eloquently on their behalf. Did that moment create a new dynamic: the cause of the family greater than the cause of an individual within it?
But she is not as alone as she thinks. Two months ago when, while being physically removed from court, she stumbled and fell, many decent people were shocked. The saving grace in that unedifying situation was the woman police officer who returned to help her up.
If she had given up there and then on an expectation of dignity, it would be understandable. The challenge always is not to allow a burning sense of injustice to distort perception. But what construction, other than self-sabotage, can be put on the strategy adopted at the judicial review of her wrongful dismissal case? What was drowning out the voices of the judge and opposing counsel by reciting her objections ad nauseam ever going to achieve? Who knows what Ms Justice Marguerite Bolger was going to say? Not all pronouncements from the bench in the Burke family’s many cases have been predictable.
Right now she is not in contempt and there is no substantive issue against her. But several judges have publicly voiced concerns about the extent to which two Burke siblings are taking up expensive court time to the detriment of other litigants. That is not a good look for a young woman solicitor. If Ammi Burke was interested in my advice, it would simply be: “There is still time to swerve out of the self-sabotage and negate the sense that you are always inevitably on the losing side. Take it.”