Ahern Steps Down in Corruption Scandal

DUBLIN -- Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, the common-touch Dubliner who promoted Ireland's economic boom and Belfast peace, announced his resignation Wednesday under a darkening cloud of financial scandal.

The announcement stunned Ireland and much of his own Cabinet, who stood by Ahern during his 18-month battle with an investigation into his secret collection of money from businessmen in the 1990s.

Ahern, an affable if often inarticulate politician who governed Ireland through 11 years of increasing peace and prosperity, protested his innocence and vowed to disprove all allegations when he resumes testifying to a corruption tribunal next month.

"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," Ahern declared in a surprise news conference on the steps of government headquarters, his shocked Cabinet colleagues flanking him.

Ahern said his resignation as premier and leader of Fianna Fail, Ireland's perennially largest party, would take effect May 6, one week after he addresses the joint houses of U.S. Congress -- an honor reflecting his pivotal role in Northern Ireland peacemaking over the past decade.

Opposition leaders said he had tarnished his impressive legacy by not resigning sooner, as he had demanded of other several other Fianna Fail colleagues caught taking money in secret.

The main opposition leader, Fine Gael chief Enda Kenny, said all of Ahern's deputies were tainted by his unbelievable testimony to the tribunal since September. Kenny said Ireland deserved an immediate general election -- less than a year after Ahern defied the odds to win a third straight term.

Kenny said the entire Fianna Fail administration, including Ahern's heir apparent, Deputy Prime Minister Brian Cowen, was complicit in Ahern's campaign of deceit.

"Not one of them confronted him. Not one of them disowned him. Not one of them were prepared to say that taking large sums of money was wrong, that it was wrong for [Ahern] not to pay his taxes, that it was wrong to use Fianna Fail money for private use," Kenny said.

Ahern, 56, became prime minister in 1997, when Ireland was already beginning to experience unprecedented economic growth on the back of high-tech investment, chiefly American companies attracted to Ireland as a well-educated, English-speaking base in Europe.

He kept Ireland's business taxes low despite European Union pressure to raise rates nearer continental norms. As a result Ireland has continued to punch way above its weight in attracting new foreign investment, even though wages have soared in line with Ireland's increasingly high cost of living.

But the so-called Celtic Tiger has finally faded this year, as Ireland's export-dependent economy has slowed rapidly. A decade of government tax surpluses has turned red, unemployment is surging, and the middle classes are struggling to cope with high inflation and unaffordable housing.