Tuesday

9th Mar 2021

Irish PM resigns amid corruption scandal

Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern has announced he will step down next month, raising the chances that the forthcoming EU treaty referendum will focus on the issue at hand rather than be a personal poll on his leadership, which had become mired in a corruption scandal.

In a shock announcement on Wednesday (2 April), the veteran leader, in office for 11 years, said he will leave office on 6 May.

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Referring to the corruption scandal involving alleged payments he took while finance minister in the 1990s, Mr Ahern said "I know in my heart of hearts that I have done no wrong and wronged no-one."

Mr Ahern's financial affairs, which were being formally investigated by a tribunal, have dominated the newspapers for months, feeding a constant drip of uncertainty about his integrity to an increasingly sceptical Irish electorate.

The outgoing prime minister acknowledged that the ongoing investigation could have an effect on the referendum on the EU treaty, expected to be held on 12 June.

"We face uncertain economic times and challenges and we are soon to cast our vote on the Lisbon Treaty. The vital interests of Ireland demand that the national dialogue of our political system address these fundamental issues and not be constantly deflected by the minutiae of my life, my lifestyle and my finances."

The political turmoil in Ireland had been watched with mounting dismay in Brussels, where it was feared the poll would become a referendum on Mr Ahern's leadership.

Ireland is the only country of the 27 member states to hold a public poll on the treaty. A no vote would scupper the process of ratification in other countries as all member states need to approve the document for it to go into force.

Refusing to comment on Mr Ahern's situation specifically, EU communications commissioner Margot Wallstrom on Wednesday nevertheless said:

"We have all kinds of concerns about the different political situations in the member states where they are about to have ratification, and especially in a country where there is a referendum to come."

Privately EU diplomats had also expressed concern about the possible impact Mr Ahern's financial situation could have on the poll, particularly at a time when the Irish economy is experiencing a downturn.

Mr Ahern, who is widely recognised for his role in negotiating the Northern Ireland peace process, is likely to be succeeded by deputy prime minister and finance minister Brian Cowen.

Fianna Fail, the centre-right political party of Mr Ahern, is expected to elect his successor next week, according to the Irish Times.

But it may not be the last of Mr Ahern from a European perspective. The veteran of the EU stage has been mentioned along with former UK leader Tony Blair and Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen as a possible candidate for EU president.

A candidate for the new post, created by the EU treaty, is expected to be decided later this year.

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