Fianna Fail is expected to elect Minister for Finance Brian Cowen as leader next week following this week’s announcement by Bertie Ahern that he intends to step down as Taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fail on May 6th.
Ahern surprised most political commentators by announcing his intention to step down at an emotion-filled press conference on the steps of Government Buildings shortly before 11am on Wednesday.
Accusations of his financial impropriety during so-called ‘GUBU’ period under disgraced former Taoiseach Charles Haughey continued to dog Mr Ahern throughout his premiership.
Although he again denied on Wednesday that he had ever taken a corrupt payment, Ahern admitted that growing pressure from the Mahon tribunal’s investigation into his personal finances had come to overshadow his work as Taoiseach.
Ahern faced a potentially devastating grilling before the Dublin parliament on his receipt of payments -- mostly in English currency -- while he was Minister for Finance in the ‘90s. The payments, which Ahern had denied receiving, became the latest major controversy at the Mahon tribunal, when his former constituency secretary Grainne Carruth tearfully and reluctantly admitted her role in lodging the payments last month.
Ahern later lashed out at the tribunal’s treatment of Ms Carruth as “appalling and low-life stuff” and “totally unnecessary”.
And his decision to step down has come as a blow to one of the recent developments of the peace process -- a US investment conference designed to kick-start the economy in the Six Counties.
But instead of a torrid interrogation in the Dail, it was a benevolent and congratulatory chamberwhich heard the ‘Teflon Taoiseach’ submit himself to the judgement of history.
While the corruption controversy is set to linger at least until Ahern himself goes before the inquiry next month, Wednesday was a day for the Taoiseach of eleven years to soak up praise, principally for his role in the peace process and Ireland’s now-ailing ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy.
Irish and world leaders paid particular tribute to the Fianna Fail leader for his leading role in the Good Friday Agreement, almost exactly ten years ago.
Outgoing DUP leader Ian Paisley said he had “enjoyed a good working relationship” with the Taoiseach and praised his efforts to reach out to the unionist population.
“He was willing to recognise the position of the unionist population that they had no interest in being part of a united Ireland,” he said.
Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams said: “On a personal level and as we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, I want to wish Bertie Ahern and his family well for the future.
“While I was critical at times of the role of the Irish government, I wish to acknowledge the important contribution Mr Ahern made.”
Sinn Féin’s leader in the Dail, Caoimhghin O Caolain, said Ahern’s decision to quit was the right one as his position had become untenable due to the “glaring contradictions” in his evidence at the Mahon tribunal. O Caolain also pointed to Ahern’s “complete failure” to deliver a reformed public health service.
“That said, it must be acknowledged that Bertie Ahern’s contribution to the development of the Irish Peace Process was significant. He built on the work of his predecessor Albert Reynolds.”
Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey said: “Mr Ahern undoubtedly played a critical role in the peace process in Northern Ireland in many ways.
“However, by removing articles two and three from the Republic of Ireland’s constitution he was able to improve the relationship between unionists and the Republic that had been bedevilled by this issue for so long. “
SDLP leader Mark Durkan said Mr Ahern had ensured “opportunity for all the people of Ireland was maximised.”
“His commitment to the north has been shown in his constant involvement either in implementing the agreement or in initiatives to secure its implementation,” he said.
Irish-American Senator Edward Kennedy praised the man he said was a “steady and effective leader of the Irish people”.
“His legacy is clear, and his contribution to peace is enormous. All Americans thank him and wish him well, and we hope his unique talents will be of service in resolving conflicts elsewhere in the years ahead in our divided world.”
Former SDLP leader John Hume said Mr Ahern’s contribution to the peace process should not be underestimated.
“His commitment to the greater prosperity of this island has been unstinting both in public and private. He deserves tremendous credit for that,” he said.
President Mary McAleese said: “As Mr Ahern prepares to leave office, I would like to compliment him warmly on his achievements as Taoiseach.
“His contributions to our thriving economy and to peace in Northern Ireland were hugely important and he deserves every credit for the work he has done.
“Bertie Ahern will be remembered as one of the outstanding politicians of his generation both nationally and internationally.”
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Mr Ahern had made an “historic contribution in helping to bring peace to Northern Ireland”.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair paid tribute to the warm relationship he shared with Mr Ahern in helping secure the Good Friday Agreement.
“We couldn’t have done it without the trust between us. We had an amazing relationship,” he said.
COWEN SET TO ADVANCE
While Ahern matched Blair’s talents for charisma and persuasion, his likely successor, Offaly man Brian Cowen, is seen as a parallel of Gordon Brown -- a resolute but unglamorous character whose reputation is derived from the strong economic growth of recent years.
Cowen has received the backing of all his ministerial party colleagues and most members of the parliamentary party.
Nominations for the position will close Saturday afternoon with a meeting of the parliamentary party next Wednesday to elect the new leader.
While Mr Cowen has not declared his intentions, it looks inevitable he will be nominated for the position of Taoiseach when the Dail meets on May 7th, the day after Bertie Ahern resigns from office.