News From Ireland
Cowen Replaces Ahern as Prime Minister
Brian Cowen has replaced Bertie Ahern as leader of the Fianna Fil party. The Laois-Offaly Dil deputy also assumed the office of Taoiseach when Ahern stood down on May 6 following his address to the joint Houses of Congress in Washington, D.C. Ahern's decision to vacate his position both as Taoiseach and party leader followed months of unfavorable publicity arising from the Mahon Tribunal's investigations into payments-to-politicians.
Although Ahern maintained he never took inappropriate payments from anybody, his explanations for a documented series of cash transactions into various accounts to which he had access became increasingly muddled and unconvincing. Some commentators perceived that Ahern's personal secretary, Grinne Farrell, was made scapegoat for her failure to adequately explain a number of sterling currency lodgements to the local bank. In a prepared speech that caught the media by surprise, the outgoing Taoiseach made a typically robust defense of his record, blaming "the constant barrage" of public scrutiny arising from the Mahon Tribunal before saying he felt it was time for him to make way.
"I have never done anything to corrupt my office," Ahern told reporters at Government Buildings. "I know in my heart of hearts that I have done no wrong and wronged no one."
History will judge Bertie Ahern as the Dubliner who was Taoiseach for 11 years and cabinet minister for 19 years, the first party leader since Eamon de Valera to win three terms in office for Fianna Fil. As Ireland's political leader through a decade of momentous political and
economic change, his critics openly acknowledge his key role in copper fastening the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. In recent years, however, he has been plagued by speculation about his personal finances. Although he insisted he did not quit because of tribunal findings, commentators suggested he remained in office until he had little option but to resign.
Taoiseach-designate Brian Cowen was named as future leader of Fianna Fil when he was returned unopposed by the party. In his first press conference as leader in waiting, he expressed his appreciation for his new role. "Today is a proud moment for me, for my wife and my two daughters - their support has been immense," he said. "It is also a proud day for my mother and my wider family. I am excited by the challenge, if somewhat daunted by the responsibility.
"I am proud of the Fianna Fil party. We'll continue to build the Republic and we'll strive to build a country strong and free with decent living standards for all."
The 48-year-old deputy will vacate his position at the Department of Finance to take up his position as Taoiseach. His appointment came as no surprise. Potential candidates for the party leadership saw Cowen in an unassailable position ever since Bertie Ahern publicly nominated him as a successor. The incoming Taoiseach will rely on coalition partners in the Progressive Democrats and Green Party to steer the government clear of a general election until 2012.
Greens Annoy Chinese
Chinese ambassador to Ireland Liu Biwei walked out of the Green Party annual conference when party leader John Gormley referred to Tibet as an independent country. Gormley further urged the Chinese government in Beijing to enter direct talks with Tibetian spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.
The Greens are currently in coalition government with Fianna Fil, and the ambassador told reporters that such comments were unacceptable and would "do nothing good" for relations between China and Ireland.
To many, however, the ambassador's exit looked like a staged event, as though he expected to be offended and made his leave almost on cue. Party delegates at the conference applauded Gormley's speech, while cabinet ministers from Fianna Fil made reassurances that his remarks would not damage international relations between the two countries.
However, Minister for Sport Seamus Brennan subsequently added to the controversy by saying the Irish government would consider a boycott of the opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympics. "The time between now and the opening ceremony will be used to remind the Chinese and the Tibetans that there is still time to show an improvement in their human rights issue and to call on them to show those improvements," he said. "Assuming that they show improvements, there is no reason why we can't attend the opening ceremonies. On the other hand, if those human rights issues were to deteriorate I think we should again consider our attendance."
Internet Error Embarrasses Aer Lingus
Aer Lingus, Ireland's national airline, landed in hot water over a consumer rights issue. A misprint on the airline's Internet ticket sales site offered transatlantic business class seats for a paltry 5 euros each. The normal price for these one-way reservations is 1,775 euros, and some 300 consumers made bookings after spotting the bargain of a lifetime.
On discovering the error, Aer Lingus blamed a technical error and attempted to cancel all reservations made for the giveaway price. However, the National Consumer Agency took the position that the company should honor the cheap bookings. "Blaming a technical error in their booking system is not good enough," said agency chief executive Anne Fitzgerald. "Aer Lingus formed a contract with the consumer at the stated fare and cannot simply walk away from its obligations."