Page last updated at 09:20 GMT, Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Ahern era drawing to close

By Shane Harrison
BBC NI Dublin correspondent

2007 was the year Bertie Ahern wrote himself into Irish political history with his election to a third successive term as taoiseach, or prime minister.

It is also, I suspect, the year that power, immediately won, began to ebb away from him.

Bertie Ahern
A year of mixed fortunes for Bertie Ahern
It was a strange election.

The first two weeks of campaigning were dominated by his finances, with reporters keen to question him about his money in the early 1990s in the wake of his marriage break-up.

Who gave him money either as a "dig-out" or as a loan and why? Did they get any benefits in return?

And why did his story about the purchase of his house appear to change over time?

He replied that he had done nothing wrong in what was a difficult period in his life and he would answer all questions at the Mahon Tribunal into alleged planning corruption.

A satisfied electorate gave him the benefit of the doubt and returned his Fianna Fail party to government in coalition with the Greens, the Progressive Democrats and with the support of Independents.

He is now up there with Eamon DeValera in terms of successful Irish leaders.

Bertie Ahern now earns more money as prime minister than Presidents George W Bush and Nicolas Sarkozy, Gordon Brown and Angela Merkel

But no sooner was the government formed than things started to go wrong.

The booming Irish economy, the Celtic Tiger, began to slow down with property prices beginning to fall.

Shortly afterwards, the government was heavily criticised in the Irish mid-west for "doing nothing" as the recently-privatised Aer Lingus announced it was moving its Heathrow slots from Shannon to Belfast International Airport.

Then, his appearances at the Mahon Tribunal were, in the view of most commentators, far from impressive, giving rise to more questions than answers.

Aer Lingus plane
Aer Lingus is moving its Heathrow slots from Shannon to Belfast

Despite massive investment, the health service continues to make people angry about its many failings.

And to top it all, Mr Ahern now earns more money as Irish prime minister than do Presidents George W Bush and Nicolas Sarkozy, Gordon Brown and Angela Merkel.

He says his salary rise, taking his annual pay to 310,000 euro was awarded by an independent expert group and that, unlike his other counterparts, he does not have a residence, holiday homes or yachts that go with the job.

His critics were quick to point out that all this was happening at a time when he, who cultivates the image of an ordinary man, was urging pay restraint on the part of workers.

Such was the public outrage that shortly before Christmas he agreed to delay the increase by a year.

Bertie Ahern, indicated during the election campaign that he would not seek a fourth term as taoiseach and shortly afterwards pointed to Finance Minister Brian Cowen as his likely successor.

The Dail
The handover of power in the Dail is expected to be seamless

And Mr Cowen is the one person Fianna Fail backbenchers increasingly look to.

But, unlike in Britain where the Brown-Blair row over the succession dominated aspects of politics, the handover in Ireland is expected to be much more seamless.

Bertie Ahern, who has appeared tetchier recently than his normally mild-mannered self, will soon have to contemplate life beyond prime ministerial power - rather like Tony Blair, his partner in the Northern Ireland peace process.

There is some speculation that he may quit as taoiseach after next year's promised referendum on what emerged from the EU constitutional treaty but others believe he will resign after the European and local elections in 2009.

One thing, though, is clear: the Bertie Ahern era, while not yet over, is beginning to come to an end.




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