Thursday, April 03, 2008

Bertie Ahern resigns: the end of the road for Ireland's Teflon Taoiseach

Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern has announced his surprise resignation overnight to take effect on 6 May. He thanked his supporters who helped him serve for over 30 years as a Fianna Fail TD and said his announcement was solely motivated by what is in the best interests of the people and nothing to do with recent developments. Ahern was Taoiseach for 11 years making him Ireland’s second longest serving leader after Eamon de Valera. He also previously held most of the important cabinet portfolios including Finance, Labour and Industry and Commerce.

Despite Ahern’s speech, there is little doubt he was brought down by those “recent developments”. This is a reference to the Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Planning Matters and Payments (commonly called the Mahon Inquiry) which over many months brought to light revelations and accusations centring on up to a dozen mini-scandals and unsatisfactorily explained financial transactions involving Ahern. Ahern gave contradictory evidence under oath much of which was contradicted by his former secretary Grainne Carruth.

While all the revelations of the Tribunal were small, their cumulative effect undone Ahern and ended his reputation as his party’s Mister Clean. Ahern was hugely popular for most of his regime, known simply as “Bertie” to most Irish people. For many years Ahern had established himself as the Teflon Taoiseach, since none of the numerous allegations about the rampant corruption under Fianna Fail’s former leader Charles Haughey ever seemed to affect him personally. But the remorseless digging of the Mahon Tribunal (in place for over ten years) has unearthed a plethora of mysterious bank accounts and puzzling payments.

There was mixed reaction overnight to his departure. Opposition Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny said that much of Bertie Ahern's good work will be overshadowed by recent events linked to the Mahon Tribunal. He called on whoever succeeds him to call an election. Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore also welcomed Ahern’s departure saying he knew months ago that Ahern would find it impossible to continue because of the mounting conflicts and contradictions between his statements and Mahon evidence uncovered about his financial affairs.

However Irish president Mary McAleese led the many tributes to Ahern’s long reign as leader. She said his contributions to Ireland’s thriving economy and to peace in Northern Ireland were “hugely important. He deserves every credit for the work he has done," she said. “Bertie Ahern will be remembered as one of the outstanding politicians of his generation both nationally and internationally." Tony Blair said Ahern played a crucial role in bringing about peace in Northern Ireland, transformed relations between Britain and Ireland and presided over a sustained period of economic and social advance.

T├ínaiste (Deputy Leader), Finance Minister and expected successor, Brian Cowen, said Ahern had enhanced Ireland’s standing in the world. He praised his contribution to the creation of a "peaceful, successful, confident and modern Ireland" and his work on the Northern Irish peace process and his presidency of the EU in 2004 when 10 new member states were admitted to the union. Cowen said Ahern’s forthcoming address to the US joint Houses of Congress on 30 April was an "extraordinary honour rarely bestowed". However Cowen’s key comment was when he said Ahern’s resignation showed he "once again put the interests of the nation first".

This clears the way for Cowen to take over position of Taoiseach and the leadership of Fianna Fail. The party’s national executive will meet today to discuss a schedule for electing a new leader. Cowen is overwhelming favourite and the leading Irish Independent newspaper calls him a "shoo-in" for the top jonb. Although fellow ministers Dermot Ahern (no relation to Bertie) and Mary Hanafin are still considering their options, it is likely Cowan will run unopposed.

He will face increasingly difficult times ahead as Ireland's economy is heading into recession. The collapse of a housing bubble coupled with the strong euro is raising unemployment and slowing growth. Maybe Ahern was right and it wasn’t the Mahon Tribunal that brought him down (after all he did win his third election victory as recently as last year). He may simply have seen that Ireland’s good times were coming to an end and he didn’t want to be at the helm when that happens.

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