DUBLIN, Ireland On the eve of the 10th anniversary of Northern Ireland's historic Good Friday agreement, one of the leaders who cemented the deal announced his resignation amid growing scrutiny over alleged financial impropriety.
At a surprise news conference Wednesday here in the Irish capital, Prime Minister Bertie Ahern denied any wrongdoing but said that the "constant barrage" of speculation was hindering the country at an important crossroads. Mounting evidence from a tribunal investigating transactions in Ahern's accounts worth more than $1.3 million today has been dominating the political agenda ahead of an important referendum on the European Union's reform treaty in June.
Whatever the outcome of the investigation, however, Ahern's legacy as peacemaker seems likely to endure after he steps down May 6. In addition, fellow politicians hailed the remarkable economic turnaround he presided over during his 11 years in office.
"Bertie Ahern was a leader for whom I had the greatest respect, admiration and friendship," said former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in response to the news. "He will always be remembered for his crucial role in bringing about peace in Northern Ireland, for transforming relations between Britain and the Irish Republic, and for presiding over a sustained period of economic and social advance in Ireland."
Although opposition politicians said Ahern was right to resign, they also praised Ahern's contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process his crowning achievement in more than three decades of political life. Along with Blair, he helped negotiate an end to more than 30 years of violence and bring both sides in the Northern Ireland conflict to power-sharing government.
After leading his Fianna Fail party to a third successive term in 2007, Ahern was facing increasing pressure to address mounting evidence from the tribunal. Before last year's election Ahern admitted to receiving cash payments from businessmen, which he called a "dig-out" during the time he was separating from his wife, but in recent months the tribunal set up by Ahern's government in 1997 to investigate corrupt payments to politicians has uncovered further cash payments. Although he made clear his intention to step down before the 2012 election, few expected his resignation to come so soon.
Fianna Fail politicians have blamed the media for hounding him out of office, but opposition Labour TD Liz McManus says such scrutiny comes with public life. "The questions that he should have answered weren't answered, so he has taken responsibility for his own actions."