Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who helped broker peace in Northern Ireland but couldn’t survive a scandal over his collection of cash from businessmen, announced Wednesday he will resign.
Ahern said at a surprise news conference he would step down May 6 after 11 years as Ireland’s leader. He denied ever receiving a corrupt payment, but conceded that 18 months of growing criticism of his financial ethics had taken a toll on the effectiveness of his government.
“Never, in all the time I’ve served in public life, have I put my personal interests ahead of the public good,” Ahern said, flanked by senior Cabinet ministers during a 10-minute statement during which his voice frequently wavered with emotion.
He said Ireland faced important challenges, including an expected June referendum on the European Union’s next treaty, and the government must “not be constantly deflected by the minutiae of my life, my lifestyle and my finances.”
“I have never received a corrupt payment, and I’ve never done anything to dishonor any office I have held. ... I know in my heart of hearts I’ve done no wrong and wronged no one,” said Ahern, 56, who has been Ireland’s leader for 11 years.
Ahern said he also planned to resign May 6 as leader of Fianna Fail, Ireland’s dominant political party, which he has led since 1994. He vowed to continue fighting the accusations against him, and predicted the corruption investigation would conclude “that I have not acted improperly in any way.”
Opposition wants election
But the leader of Ireland’s main opposition party, Fine Gael chief Enda Kenny, said Ahern had suffered unprecedented public criticism as “a liar and perjurer,” and had “bowed to the inevitable” because of his implausible testimony to an anti-corruption tribunal.
Kenny, whose rival coalition narrowly lost an election last year to Fianna Fail, called on his successor to mount an immediate general election. Analysts agreed this was unlikely.
Ahern’s terms in office have been marked by unprecedented economic success at home and peace in the neighboring British territory of Northern Ireland.
Tributes on his record of achievement flowed in, including from his most likely successor as both government and party leader, Deputy Prime Minister Brian Cowen.
Cowen — who unlike other Cabinet ministers was told of Ahern’s decision Tuesday night — praised him as “a remarkable man who has achieved remarkable things for his country.”
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who built a close friendship with Ahern as they jointly oversaw several summits on Northern Ireland, said Ahern should be remembered for his crucial role in bringing about peace in Northern Ireland.
He said Ahern should also be remembered for “transforming relations between Britain and the Irish Republic, and for presiding over a sustained period of economic and social advance in Ireland.”
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters Wednesday that Ahern’s resignation is “an individual decision that a politician has to make, whether it’s in Ireland or elsewhere. We’ve worked well with him on a number of different issues.”
Ministers caught by surprise
Cabinet ministers said Ahern had given no hint — as they gathered Wednesday morning for their weekly meeting over breakfast — that he was about to announce an end to his Irish political career. Instead he discussed the day’s government business, point by point.
Then he told them he was resigning and invited them to the news conference for the announcement.
“There was a shocked silence around the room. People genuinely did not expect it,” Education Minister Mary Hanafin said. After Ahern gave the resignation statement, the Cabinet reconvened to finish the meeting.
Ahern’s hold on power has been steadily weakening since investigators discovered cash payments he secretly received from businessmen in the mid-1990s.
Ahern initially claimed to have received just two major payments from personal friends. But the investigation since has uncovered about a dozen undocumented cash deposits in 1994 to Ahern, who is due to resume testimony next month.
Ahern said he intended to remain in office until he delivers a speech April 30 to the joint houses of Congress in Washington. He said that speech would be “one of the proudest moments of my political career.”
Cowen said he hoped Ireland would laud, not lampoon, Ahern in the coming days. He suggested that Ahern would be in line for a higher-profile job on the international stage.
“His application, his political judgment, his determination and his conciliatory manner are among the special characteristics that helped him to shape the Ireland we live in today,” Cowen said.