News Analysis

Tuesday 30 September 2014

The cricket-loving ex-con paid €103,000 a year by taxpayers

Kim Bielenberg on the Minister who was jailed -- but still gets a handsome pension

Published 20/11/2011 | 06:00

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Fall from grace: Ray Burke

He famously offered tea and biscuits to builders when they arrived at his house with cash-stuffed brown envelopes. Sadly, when I caught up with Ray Burke this week, he was not quite so hospitable.

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The former Fianna Fáil minister, and one-time inhabitant of Arbour Hill prison, steered his silver BMW into the driveway of his home at Griffith Downs, north Dublin. Suddenly, as he caught sight of me through his side window, a look of grave suspicion came over his face.

Only a few days ago, new figures revealed that Burke, who was jailed in 2005 for making false tax returns, is one of the highest-earning political pensioners in the State. It is a mark of the odd way in which we conduct our affairs that a man who was labelled corrupt by a planning tribunal continues to live on the generous state income of €103,838 per year.

It has been estimated that since his premature retirement from politics, Burke -- once described as an "honourable man'' by Bertie Ahern -- has cost the State €1m in pensions alone.

It was once said of Burke that he could he spot a thirsty man at 50 paces. At the Flood planning tribunal he described some of the funds he received from his bewildering array of benefactors as "walking around money''. In the course of his duties a politician has to have funds, he explained, to buy drinks after funerals, or to entertain constituents in the Dáil bar.

As one Fianna Fáil sidekick put it: "You could never put your hand in your pocket for a drink when Ray was around."

But sadly times have changed. If he spotted my thirst as I stood on the kerb outside his home this week, Burke was in no mood to quench it.

Neither did he wish to answer questions about the €103,838 which he continues to receive from the taxpayer, his past misadventures in the planning system, and the good old days when he had an offshore company called Caviar.

I even offered him a letter in an enticing brown envelope, but he declined to take it.

Some depictions of Burke portray him as a gaunt figure, a stooped shadow of his former self, but there was little sign of that when I came across him this week.

He stepped gingerly from his 2000-reg car, the same vehicle that he had a decade ago. He has actually aged little since his star turns at the Flood Tribunal.

He was unwilling to talk, but friendly enough. "I am retired now. I don't do media at all. I never give interviews. It's nothing personal.''

It's a far cry from the days when Burke could be a pugnacious, irascible and occasionally witty public presence.

"Did ye hear," he once declared to political correspondents in Leinster House when his planning dealings were attracting unwelcome attention, "I'm the most interviewed deputy in the house."

"That's great, Ray," said a journalist. "Yeah, by the f***in' guards," Burke replied.

But this week, when I encountered him, there was not even one of these choice expletives to remind me of the good old days.

I tried to steal a glance inside his living room. There was no sign of the famous sideboard where he stored the brown envelopes when he was in his pomp back in the 1980s.

Burke's living quarters just around the corner from his former boss Bertie Ahern at Griffith Downs are a good deal more modest than Briargate, his executive mansion in Swords and scene of the famous tea and biscuits episode that brought high comedy to the tribunal.

On that occasion in the late eighties a developer's employee James Gogarty accompanied Michael Bailey, a builder from another firm, to Burke's home with at least £30,000 -- mostly in cash. Gogarty told the tribunal that on the way to the house he asked: "Will we get a receipt for this money?"

Bailey replied: "Will we f***!"

In his heyday Burke was the quintessential clientelist operator, who based his popularity on doing favours.

"My life was seamless. I was a politician from the time I got up in the morning until I went to bed at night," he told the planning tribunal.

Nowadays his public appearances are largely confined to funerals, which were always a crucial part of the Burke political operation. He inherited his seat from his father Paddy, who was known locally as 'The Bishop' because he attended so many funeral Masses.

Ray Burke now spends his time with his family, and going for occasional quiet pints with a few friends who have remained loyal.

PJ Mara, who stayed on cordial terms with him after his downfall, told me: "He cut off all his contacts with Fianna Fáil. He would see a few personal friends and of course Ann (his wife) and his two daughters. They are a very united bunch.''

Now that he is away from the political scene, Burke has time to indulge his passion for cricket. He is said to follow test matches avidly.

"It's very much a north Dublin thing,'' said one Fianna Fáil luminary. "There are lots of cricket clubs in his former constituency, and the game has always been popular there.''

Burke's enthusiasm for the game goes back many years. Even in his days as a senior politician, he was rumoured to break off meetings to check cricket scores.

Decades of chicanery -- including corrupt payments received from businessmen -- finally caught up with Burke in 2005 when he received his six-month jail sentence at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court.

It was not the receipt of corrupt payments, confirmed in the planning tribunal, that ultimately sent him to jail. He pleaded guilty to making incorrect tax returns.

As prisoner number 33791 at Arbour Hill, Burke was described as a model inmate, who worked in the prison's Braille unit. It produces books, magazines and other material for the visually impaired. For this he was paid €2.15 a day.

Burke was released after four and a half months for good behaviour, and may feel that he has paid his debt to society.

One can speculate about his present state of mind as he looks back on the planning scandals that played a part in the near obliteration of his party in Dublin.

He can at least console himself that on a pension of €103,838 a year, he will never be poor.

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