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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 October 2006, 22:01 GMT 23:01 UK
Ahern apology raises more questions
By James Helm
BBC News, Dublin

Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern
Bertie Ahern says he has done nothing wrong
As the backbenchers loudly applauded their leader, you could almost sense their relief. He had apologised.

After nearly two weeks of intense pressure and speculation about his political future, this was Bertie Ahern's big day. There'd been much talk of how he might express his contrition.

It came at the end of his statement to a packed parliamentary chamber, when he said that accepting money from businessmen back in the 1990s "was in error, it was a misjudgment, although not in breach of any law or code of conduct".

It is a week since an emotional Mr Ahern told the Irish people on national television that, back in 1993 and 1994, he had been loaned around 33,000 by friends.

Emotional appearance

It was at a time of personal need and sadness, he said, when he had run up bills as a result of his separation from his wife, Miriam.

I now regret the choices I made in those difficult and dark times... I offer my apologies
Bertie Ahern, Irish prime minister

It was an emotional appearance that made compelling viewing. For his opponents though, and possibly some supporters, it raised fresh questions.

Many questions surrounded his mention of a donation of 8,000 which he said he had been given in 1994, also at the time he was Ireland's finance minister. It stemmed from an engagement in Manchester.

Mr Ahern, a keen Manchester United fan, was over in England to see his team play, and he addressed a group of Irish businessmen at a hotel in the city. At the end, he was handed the money.

Tense performance

Throughout, Mr Ahern has maintained he has done nothing wrong, and broken no tax, legal or ethical codes. That has not placated opponents.

The leaders of the largest opposition parties, Fine Gael's Enda Kenny and Labour's Pat Rabbitte, heavily criticised the Taoiseach's behaviour. The pressure grew.

Now came his much-awaited appearance. He sounded tense, at times even angry, speaking about matters which, at the outset, he had insisted were "personal".

But at the end he said: "I now regret those choices I made in dark times. I offer my apologies."

Cue loud clapping from his own side of the house.

History of scandals

Crucial in all of this has been the role of Michael McDowell, the Tanaiste, or deputy prime minister, and leader of the smaller party in the governing coalition, the Progressive Democrats (PDs). He sat listening beside Mr Ahern.

Protestors holding posters criticising Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern
The affair has evoked the scandal-ridden former PM Charles Haughey

After years of financial scandals, especially in the era of the late Charles Haughey, the PDs have long portrayed themselves as having an important role to play in government - that of keeping a watchful eye on its bigger partner, Fianna Fail (the party of Mr Haughey and Mr Ahern).

Last week, Mr McDowell, whose portfolio of jobs also extends to being Ireland's Justice Minister, said he was not wholly satisfied by Mr Ahern's explanations. He said he wanted to hear more.

Cue a political frenzy. Some commentators thought the end of the coalition, or of Mr Ahern's tenure, could be nigh.

Questions remain

The Irish Times broke the original story that Mr Ahern was being investigated by the Mahon Tribunal, which is looking into allegations of corruption in the planning process.

Since then, its editor and a reporter have appeared before the tribunal in Dublin to answer questions about the leak. In recent days the paper has been heavily critical of Mr Ahern.

Mr Ahern's appearance in the Dail, the Irish parliament, has still not satisfied all his opponents. Battered and bruised, the man who has led the government here since 1997 faces more challenges ahead.

An election is due within the next nine months. Then a real assessment of how this whole debate over cash and ethics might have damaged Bertie Ahern's standing, and that of his party, will be possible.


SEE ALSO
Irish PM admits receiving loans
27 Sep 06 |  Europe
Profile: Bertie Ahern
03 Oct 06 |  Europe

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