Thu, Oct 05, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Defiant Ahern apologizes

AP , DUBLIN

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern leaves government buildings in Dublin on Tuesday.

PHOTO: AFP

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern apologized to lawmakers on Tuesday for taking money in secret from 39 Irish businessmen, a scandal that has threatened to end his nine-year term in office.

Ahern told Dail Eireann -- Ireland's 166-member parliament -- that accepting more than 60,000 euros (US$75,000) in 1993 and 1994 when he was Ireland's finance minister "was an error. It was a misjudgment, although not in breach of any law or code of conduct at the time."

Ahern said businessmen gave him the money unsolicited to help him cope with a costly 1993 separation agreement with his wife. He said he gave them no favors in return.

"It was not illegal or impermissible to have done what I did. But I now regret the choices I made in those difficult and dark times," Ahern said.

"The bewilderment caused to the public about recent revelations has been deeply upsetting for me and others near and dear to me. To them, to the Irish people, and to this house, I offer my apologies," he continued.

Had he known that taking the money "would cause such difficulties and media intrusion for my family and friends, and would give rise to distortion of my motives and misrepresentation of my conduct, I would not have accepted a penny," Ahern said.

Members of Ahern's governing Fianna Fail party applauded his 15-minute statement, which was overwhelmingly defiant in tone. Opposition leaders immediately questioned whether Ahern had told the truth.

Pat Rabbitte, leader of the opposition Labour Party, questioned Ahern's claim he did not have a personal bank account in Ireland in 1993 -- yet later, somehow, deposited funds from the 1993 and 1994 payments into an account.

"Have you evaded tax?" Rabbitte asked Ahern across the chamber. "Did you have a bank account outside the jurisdiction, or did somebody open an account on your behalf?"

Ahern denied evading tax or hiding money, and insisted he did operate without a bank account for several years. He did not answer the question of where he kept his money during those years.

His apology was designed to persuade the Progressive Democrats -- the smaller party in Ahern's coalition government -- not to withdraw in protest.

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McDowell, the Progressive Democrat leader, announced on Tuesday night that he considered Ahern still fit for the job.

McDowell said Ahern had been wrong to take the money, but had apologized -- and, critically for McDowell -- did not appear to have granted his donors special favors.

He said leaving the government, and denying Ahern a parliamentary majority "would fly in the face of reason and common sense and the common good."

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