Wednesday, April 2, 2008

DUBLIN — Prime Minister Bertie Ahern this morning announced his resignation after 11 years in power.

Mr. Ahern’s tenure saw Ireland achieve record economic growth, with Northern Ireland at peace. However, a recent inquest into Mr. Ahern’s personal finances saw questions raised over almost $781,000 in payments.

Mr. Ahern will formally step down on May 6, after addressing Congress in Washington and receiving the Japanese prime minister here.

“I have done no wrong and wronged no one,” said a visibly emotional Mr. Ahern at a press conference on the steps outside Dublin’s government buildings this morning.

He said he had “never done anything to corrupt my office.”

Only yesterday, though, he challenged the tribunal set up to investigate political corruption issues in Ireland, which over the past year had homed in on a plethora of cash gifts and loans given to Mr. Ahern in the early 1990s.

Ironically, this all came while Mr. Ahern was finance minister, although did not have a personal bank account. Mr. Ahern’s resignation will not halt the inquiry into his personal finances, but the tribunal will not be permitted to raise relevant parliamentary statements, and will allow Mr. Ahern’s lawyers access to some inquest documentation.

Recent months saw the noose tighten, with a slow series of cash gifts and unexplained bank accounts crop up during tribunal cross-examinations. Matters came to a head when a former personal secretary broke down in tears before the inquest, after contradicting Mr. Ahern’s earlier recollections of certain donations and bank deposits.

With an Irish referendum looming on the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty, Mr. Ahern today acknowledged that his continued premiership could jeopardize the vote on the EU’s latest centralization move.

Ireland is the sole member state to have a popular vote on the Lisbon Treaty, a version of the EU constitution. As Irish prime minister, Mr. Ahern took the rotating EU presidency in 2004 and was the dealmaker who got agreement on the constitution, later jettisoned by France and the Netherlands in referenda held in 2005.

The Irish referendum awaits a fixed date — likely June 12 — and today main opposition leader Enda Kenny followed up his demand that Ireland hold a fresh parliamentary election, by focusing on the importance of the EU vote.

Fears abounded that with a controversy-riddled Mr. Ahern in office, the treaty vote could be jeopardized, which would prevent the EU from implementing the document.

Most of Ireland’s political parties support the treaty, but whether the public vote reflects this remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Taoiseach (pronounced ‘Tee-shuck’) Ahern, to use the official Irish title for prime minister, will reflect on his leadership of a country that rocketed up the global economic league tables.

He took over in 1997, when Ireland was three years into over a decade of 6 percent average economic growth, and a reduction of unemployment from 18 percent in 1993 to today’s 5 percent level. One year later, Mr. Ahern left his mother’s funeral to help broker the historic Northern Ireland peace deal, inked on Good Friday 1998.

Last year, Mr. Ahern won a third parliamentary election in a row, this time bringing his Fianna Fil, or Soldiers of Destiny, and its economically liberal Progressive Democrat partners into a “champagne and sandals” coalition with Ireland’s Green Party. However the electoral success was deemed to be the fruit of Mr. Ahern’s finance minister Brian Cowen, whom he has since anointed as successor designate as party leader.

Closing a speech to Ireland’s parliament later today, Mr. Ahern said, Now at the end I will submit to the verdict of history.”

But history will unlikely issue judgment until Mr. Ahern’s tribunal ends, and the broader implications of the EU centralization drive he promoted become clear.

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