Irish leader quits over financial probe

The Baltimore Sun

DUBLIN, Ireland -- Bertie Ahern, the Irish prime minister who alternately wheedled and prodded Northern Ireland into an historic peace agreement, announced yesterday he was resigning in the midst of a long-running investigation of his financial ties to businesspeople.

Flanked by his ministers, the 56-year-old politician said in an emotional statement that he would step down May 6. The date comes shortly after a planned address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress and the 10th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement, which helped end decades of conflict in Northern Ireland.

"I want everyone to understand one truth above all else. Never, in all the time I have served in public life, have I put personal interest ahead of the public good," said Ahern, who is one of Europe's longest-serving prime ministers. "I have never received a corrupt payment, and I have never done anything to dishonor any office I have held."

Ahern was elected to a record third term last year at the head of a smoothly functioning coalition government and had presided over an economic boom that helped transformed Ireland from an impoverished rural economy to a major exporter in Europe.

The prime minister had indicated he would likely step down before the end of his mandate, which could have been as far off as 2012, but the drumbeat of inquiry into payments he received in the 1990s has grown feverish in recent weeks.

Political analysts said Ahern and his allies feared the probe could affect the outcome of Ireland's coming referendum vote on a new European Union treaty, and possibly local council and European Parliament elections next year.

"There is a growing fear, looking at the political mood, that people would take advantage of the referendum to register a vote against the government, and that would be a very big embarrassment, and very serious," said Timothy Patrick Coogan, an Irish historian and former newspaper editor. "The country's done very well with the EU; it would be the reversal of the engine of a speeding car."

Ahern has long been dubbed the "Teflon Taoiseach," a reference to the Gaelic term for prime minister and his ability to avoid the scandals that plagued some of his predecessors. However, his finances dating from before he took the top office in 1997 have come to dominate Irish politics over the past 18 months.

Kim Murphy writes for the Los Angeles Times. Donny Mahoney is a special correspondent.

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