Minister under fire over pounds 30,000 cash gift

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A new row over gifts of cash to ministers is threatening the Irish Foreign Minister, Ray Burke, who was urged yesterday to step aside during investigations into a pounds 30,000 gift he has admitted receiving from a building contractor during the 1989 general election.

The affair has blown up just as Mr Burke is due to play a central role in next month's long-awaited multi-party talks in Northern Ireland, and while Dail parties are deciding the scope of a new extended inquiry into payments to politicians. It was prompted by this week's findings of an earlier tribunal investigating gifts to former Taoiseach Charles Haughey.

The Fine Gael Opposition chief whip Jim Higgins yesterday said he was "at a loss" to understand why "a huge personal donation" to Mr Burke, 53, a former auctioneer, environment minister, and chairman of Dublin county council, could not be investigated by the new tribunal, agreed by the cabinet on Thursday.

Mr Higgins cited government suggestions that an ongoing garda investigation meant Mr Burke's case could not be covered in that new tribunal. He challenged the government to confirm that Mr Burke was under garda investigation. If he was, he should "stand down from office at least for the duration of the investigation," Mr Higgins said.

Gardai confirmed they had begun an inquiry but a statement from a key witness has been delayed pending a request for immunity from prosecution.

Earlier this month Mr Burke confirmed that he had received a "totally unsolicited" pounds 30,000 for election expenses, "not pounds 80,000 as reported", from the building firm JMSE in 1989. He said he was the target of "a vicious campaign of rumour and innuendo" and had never worked on the firm's behalf. He said he had given gardai a number of anonymous threatening letters he had received.