Leading article: Mr Ahern must practise what he preached

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In some ways, the careers of Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern display an unusual symmetry, as men who have sought to provide their parties with a new start. Their close personal co-operation in the long and difficult Irish peace process has brought huge dividends, and both will long be remembered in Ireland for that joint achievement.

The two came into office within a month of each other in 1997, both showing themselves to be vigorous leaders and proven election-winners who have for years dominated their country's politics. Mr Ahern defined his task not as the modernisation of policy, but as consigning to history his Fianna Fail party's identification with the politics of the brown envelope. Until this week he seemed to have made much progress in improving its image. A couple of former cabinet ministers went to jail, others were publicly disgraced.

When the most corrupt of them all, the former Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, died this year the small turn-out at his funeral reflected public disapproval of a career strewn with illicit millions. In present circumstances, the exceptionally low standards set by Mr Haughey might well provide a decisive advantage for Mr Ahern. Whatever his transgressions, they pale almost into significance against the record of his predecessor.

As with the Labour Party's "loans for peerages" affair, the case against Mr Ahern hinges on whether money that changed hands took the form of a loan or a gift. The Ahern explanation is that he received a total of €50,000 from a group of 12 friends in the early 1990s. He was, he conveys, pretty well broke and in debt after a long and costly legal separation.

The 12 were not seeking political favours, merely helping out a friend in need. The purpose was not to enrich him but, in the words of one of the donors, "giving a friend a leg-up". The fact that the friend was minister for finance was, it is said, neither here nor there.

There are several problems with this explanation. First, some of the donors themselves subsequently received a "leg-up" when Mr Ahern appointed them to important boards such as that of Ireland's Central Bank.

Second, he asserts that the payments were not gifts but loans which he fully intended to repay. Yet he repaid none of them, and paid no interest on them over the past decade. He must therefore convince sceptics they were not gifts, on which tax would be due.

And third, he has repeatedly and formally declared that ministers should not be under any personal financial obligations. That has been his consistent response when others have got into difficulties. But it is not his line now, when he himself is under fire.