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Last Updated: Wednesday, 27 September 2006, 02:06 GMT 03:06 UK
Irish PM's loan admission gambit
By James Helm
BBC Dublin correspondent

Bertie Ahern
Mr Ahern has been under growing pressure to make a statement
It was not Bertie Ahern's first on-screen appearance of the day.

As part of a big-screen video presentation shown before Tony Blair's farewell speech at the Labour conference in Manchester, Mr Ahern paid tribute to the UK prime minister's efforts in Northern Ireland.

Over the years, the pair have developed a close political relationship as they have clocked up the miles on trips to Belfast and elsewhere to meet Northern Ireland's parties.

His later appearance, on prime time Irish television, was of much more importance.

For several days, opponents - and some allies - had called for him to make a full statement on the issue of payments from businessmen that has been following Mr Ahern every step of the way.

Over the weekend, at the biggest sporting event ever to come to Ireland, golf's Ryder Cup, reporters had tried to question him about the cash gifts he received back in the 1990s.

For Mr Ahern, an avid sports fan, it must have taken the gloss off what should have been an enjoyable time, as he handed over the trophy to Europe's triumphant captain, Ian Woosnam.

Since then he must have felt a bit like members of the American team - resoundingly beaten after days of grey clouds and heavy weather.

Now, he has made his statement, via Ireland's state broadcaster, RTE.

He says that back in 1993 and the following year, when he was Ireland's finance minister, he received money from twelve friends.

He listed their names, and the total amounts involved: around IR£39,000 ($63,000; £33,000).

He described how the money was a loan from "long-term, personal friends" at the time of his separation from his wife.

It was at a difficult, sad period of his life, he said, and the money was to help him out with legal bills, and for the future needs of his daughters.

"There was no corruption in this," he said, "no favours sought, no favours given."

'Private business'

News of the gifts leaked out last week as it emerged that Mr Ahern was being investigated by an anti-corruption tribunal.

My advice is I've broken absolutely no codes
Bertie Ahern
Irish Taoiseach
It was set up by the Irish government in 1997 to look into allegations of planning corruption.

Mr Ahern had until now maintained that the matter was his "own private business".

But in his latest statement he stressed: "My advice is I've broken absolutely no codes - ethical, tax, legal or otherwise."

As for why he had not paid back the loans, he added: "I haven't paid the money because they refused to take it. I think they will now because they see the difficulties it created, but I offered a number of times to repay it."

By recording the TV interview Mr Ahern may have hoped to appeal over the heads of politicians to Ireland's voters.

Whatever his government's wider political fortunes, he has retained, in the main, his personal popularity - especially in his political heartland of north Dublin.

Taoiseach, or Prime Minister, since 1997, he faces a general election next year.

His government - a coalition of his own party, Fianna Fail, and their smaller partners, the Progressive Democrats - has survived political troubles before, and overseen a period of impressive economic growth.

Now there must be grave concern in party corridors of possible political fall-out.

New questions

His political opponents were not persuaded by his words.

The Green Party leader, Trevor Sargent, said: "By taking payments from businessmen when minister for finance, and by the manner in which he has handled this issue, the Taoiseach has undermined confidence in his leadership and has brought his office into disrepute."

Pat Rabbitte, the leader of the Labour party, called his performance "quite unconvincing" and said it raised a lot of new questions. Fine Gael's leader, Enda Kenny, echoed that view.

Those questions will come thick and fast for Mr Ahern in the next few days, as Ireland's parliament reconvenes after its summer break.


SEE ALSO
Profile: Bertie Ahern
12 May 04 |  Europe
Country profile: Ireland
12 Jul 06 |  Country profiles

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