The Dublin government is divided by the deep facing 26-County Prime Minister, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, over cash payments he accepted when Minister for Finance in the 1990s.

While his Fianna Fail Ministerial colleagues rallied around him, his coalition partners in the Progressive Democrats demanded further explanation next week, with a clear threat to seek Ahern’s resignation if he fails to do so.

Mr Ahern has admitted accepting a O50,000 euro (#34,000) as yet unpaid loan from 12 business figures in 1993/1994 and an #8,000 (O11,800) unofficial speaking engagement fee in Manchester in 1994.

Mr Ahern is due to give a full explanation on the Manchester payments during a scheduled debate in the Dublin parliament next Tuesday. Controversy also still remains around the larger payment, which Mr Ahern said he received from friends who later refused repayment.

The Minister for Finance, Brian Cowen, appeared twice on Irish television to defend Mr Ahern, and suggested that the Manchester money, as well as the ‘unpaid loans’, had been collected because of his difficult personal circumstances at the time.

Dublin Fianna Fail backbencher Barry Andrews summed up his party’s atitude when he said it would be “a complete farce” if Mr Ahern’s premiership comes to an end over the crisis.

“I back the Taoiseach 100%. He’s a superb leader when you look at how he has united the party and performed on issues like the economy and Northern Ireland.

However, at least one Fianna Fail backbencher disagreed. MJ Nolan, from Carlow, said: “He did compromise himself by not making an effort to repay the loans.”

“I think it’s not in anybody’s interests that a member of Government should be beholden to anybody.”

Tanaiste Michael McDowell has warned that he is not satisfied by Mr Ahern’s explanation on the Manchester payment in particular and said very significant matters of concern remained.

Enjoying a dominant position, Mr McDowell said himself and his seven parliamentary colleagues would allow Mr Ahern to remain as Taoiseach if he could give a “credible and convincing” account of how he came to accept the payments.

But he indicated that he would seek a “proportionate” response, falling short of what he described as “an execution” or a “decapitation”.

“What I am saying is that a person in his position has to be accountable in the right way to Dail Eireann,” Mr McDowell declared.

“As far as I am concerned all of these things fall short of what we could consider acceptable but what the Irish people have to decide is whether they want the Government to break up and a person who achieved huge things for Ireland to bow out on this,” he said.

“What the public want is accountability. Should we bring about a decapitation? Let’s look at Northern Ireland and all the other serious issues. When all those things are put into the balance is this an issue on which the Government should collapse or where there should be a political execution? The huge problem is that we may end up with a disproportionate response,” he said.

Sinn Fein Dail leader Caoimhghin O Caolain said it was ironic that the Progressive Democrats were once again “posing as the moral guardians of Government”.

“The future of the Fianna Fail/PD administration now hangs in the balance over an issue relating to the links between politicians in Government and wealthy business people. The Taoiseach, of course, has questions to answer about his own relationship with the donors in the case of the money he received in Manchester.

“However, it is ironic that the PDs are in this position given that they fully share the Fianna Fail record of granting privilege to the wealthiest in Irish society.

“The Tanaiste Michael McDowell has described inequality as good for the economy. He and his PD colleagues have fully supported, implemented, and in some cases initiated a whole range of Government polices that rewarded privilege and acted against the public interest.”

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