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Irish PM to resign one month before EU referendum

Latest update : 2008-04-02

Bertie Ahern said that he will quit on May 6, following a series of controversial appearances at an anti-corruption tribunal. Irish voters will decide on the future of the streamlined EU treaty one month later. (Story: S. Silke)

Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern announced on Wednesday that he would step down on May 6th amid allegations of corruption that have tarnished his third consecutive term.

An emotional Irish premier – or Taoiseach, as the office is called in Ireland – announced his decision at an improvised press conference in Dublin. Several ministers and members of parliament “shed a few tears”, according to a reporter speaking on national television RTE.

The solemn, articulate speech contrasted with the hesitant, broken style known as “Bertispeak” and seen by many Irish commentators as a trademark of Ahern’s friendly, man-of-the-people image.

 

“Dig-outs”

 

His popularity, however, did not deter the tribunal from investigating his personal finances.

The Mahon tribunal, named after its chairman, has been investigating illegal payments from property developers to Irish politicians since 1997.

Over the last few months, it has focused on cash lodgments to Ahern’s personal accounts and those of his relatives. The sums under investigation for the period 1989-2002 amount to an estimated 886,000 euros.

While acknowledging some payments, Ahern had always insisted that they were “dig-outs” given by personal friends at difficult times in his life. "The accusations are without foundation," Ireland's European affairs minister Dick Roche told FRANCE 24.

However, his defence began to cave when his former secretary failed to support his version of the story in front of the tribunal over the past weeks. “That witness retracting her testimony was the last straw,” said FRANCE 24’s Dublin correspondent Hervé Amoric.

Although Ahern’s situation looked more and more untenable, he insisted when resigning that “recent developments have not motivated [his] decision”. Yet he recognized that “the important work of government and party is now being over-shadowed by issues relating to me at the Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Planning Matters and Payments.”

 

Economic growth


Ahern, 56, rooted his career in north Dublin’s working-class constituencies, where he first got elected to parliament in 1977. He became Taoiseach in 1997 and is credited with maintaining the formidable growth that has made Ireland a textbook example of low-tax, high-tech economic policy.

As he announced his resignation, he said he felt proud of having “delivered a modern economy with sustainable growth and employment that ended the days of forced emigration.”

Critics would argue that his government also leaves Ireland with critical hospital waiting lists and substandard transport and telecommunications infrastructure.

Good Friday agreement


On the international stage, Ahern presided over the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that slowly pulled Northern Ireland out of a 30-year period of violent troubles.

His good-natured but inflexible negotiation skills were instrumental in bringing together life-long enemies such as former top IRA officer Martin McGuinness and Loyalist hardline Ian Paisley. The latter, who is now first minister of the Northern Ireland Executive, also said that he would step down next May.

"[Ahern] will always be remembered for his crucial role in bringing about peace in Northern Ireland, for transforming relations between Britain and the Irish Republic," said former British prime minister Tony Blair.

Peace in the north and prosperity in the Republic have nourishing each other, yielding to what commentators have called “the peace dividend”.


EU treaty referendum


The Taoiseach is also Europe’s man in Ireland. After Irish voters rejected the Nice treaty in 2001, he led a campaign to have it ratified in a second vote the next year.

Ahern held the EU presidency when European leaders finally agreed to sign the tricky constitutional treaty, before French and Dutch voters rejected it in subsequent referendum.

Next June, Ireland will be the only EU member state that will hold a referendum to ratify a new, simplified Lisbon treaty. With its strongest advocate resigning one month before the vote, all European eyes will be on his successor – probably Finance Minister and Tanaiste (vice-prime minister) Brian Cowen.

Date created : 2008-04-02

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