Scandal-hit Irish PM to resign

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The Independent Online

Bertie Ahern was forced to quit as the Irish Republic's Taoiseach today as the deepening scandal over his private finances threatened the future of his coalition government.

He will resign on 6 May after making an historic address to both houses of the US Congress in Washington.

Mr Ahern announced his shock decision to leave office this morning in an emotional address to a hastily-arranged press conference at Government Buildings in central Dublin.

The Taoiseach admitted that controversy over his private finances had overshadowed his premiership, but denied any wrongdoing.

"I have never received a corrupt payment and I've never done anything to dishonour any office that I've ever held," he insisted.

Controversy over Mr Ahern's personal finances deepened in recent days after conflicting evidence at the Mahon Tribunal - investigating payments to politicians and planning corruption - sparked calls from his coalition partners to clarify his own evidence.

Mr Ahern said today: "I know that some people will feel that some aspects of my finances are unusual.

"I truly regret if this has caused any confusion or worry in people's minds."

He said the confusion had arisen because of decisions he had taken during a time of great personal change, referring to his separation from his wife, Miriam.

"I know in my heart of hearts that I have done no wrong," he said.

"I will not allow issues relating to my own person to dominate the body politic as this would be contrary to the long-term interests of the Irish people.

"I want everyone to understand one truth above all else: Never in all the time I served in public life have I ever put my personal interests ahead of the public good.

"I have provided more details about my personal finances than any person in public life that's ever held office.

"And while I would be the first to admit that I made mistakes in my life and my career, one mistake I've never made was to enrich myself by misusing the trust of the people.

"I have never received a corrupt payment and I've never done anything to dishonour any office that I've ever held."

Mr Ahern's deputy, Tanaiste Brian Cowen, who is now tipped to succeed his Fianna Fail party colleague, today praised the Taoiseach's political legacy.

But within the last week the Progressive Democrats and the Green Party, who form part of Mr Ahern's coalition government, demanded clarification about a conflict of evidence at the Tribunal.

Mr Ahern's former secretary testified that she had lodged £15,000 into bank accounts for Mr Ahern, despite his earlier denials of having made such sterling lodgements.

Lawyers for Mr Ahern yesterday launched a legal challenge against aspects of the Tribunal at the High Court in Dublin.

Mr Ahern was widely praised for his role in developing the Celtic Tiger economic boom in Ireland.

He also won international acclaim for his role in the Northern Ireland peace process and in securing the historic Good Friday Agreement peace deal in 1998.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair paid tribute to Mr Ahern for his role in the peace process.

Mr Blair said: "Bertie Ahern was a great Taoiseach, a leader for whom I had the greatest respect, admiration and friendship.

"He will always be remembered for his crucial role in bringing about peace in Northern Ireland, for transforming relations between Britain and the Irish Republic and for presiding over a sustained period of economic and social advance in Ireland."

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