News : Ahern to Address U.S. Congress

Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern will address a joint session of U.S. Congress on April 30. "I am deeply honored and delighted to accept the invitation from Speaker Nancy Pelosi," Ahern said in a prepared statement.

"This invitation is a singular honor for Ireland and one of great historic significance, reflecting the unique friendship between Ireland and the United States over many centuries and which continues to the present day.

"I also look forward to meeting with the President, the Speaker, Chairman Richie Neal and many other friends of Ireland when we gather to celebrate St. Patrick's Day in Washington, D.C."

While the Washington speech will represent a high point for the Taoiseach, public reaction at home to his performances at the Mahon Tribunal investigating payments-to-politicians is a lot less flattering. The Fianna Fil leader has been unconvincing when asked to explain several payments he received, describing them variously as loans or gifts, and on one occasion saying that an anonymous IR5,000 check he received in 1994 was a "political donation for personal use."

There is growing disquiet among Fianna Fil supporters that continuing exposure of the Taoiseach's muddled finances has weakened Ahern's reputation and damaged the party's electoral appeal. Mr. Ahern has been unable to explain to the tribunal's satisfaction a stream of payments received in his name.

In angry exchanges at Dublin Castle, he has been criticized for his level of cooperation, and in response the Taoiseach mounted a High Court challenge - to be heard April 1 - on whether the Mahon Tribunal has exceeded its brief in examining his financial affairs.

One of many transactions that did the Taoiseach no favor was the tribunal's discovery of a IR30,000 loan made to his former girlfriend, Celia Larkin, in 1993. The money was used to buy her aunt a house. However, the loan - provided from Fianna Fil funds in Bertie Ahern's Dublin constituency - was only repaid (with interest) several months ago. Unorthodox financial arrangements surrounding the loan were never made public prior to the state inquiry in late February. Mr. Ahern told the tribunal he didn't know anything about the deal prior to its approval by trustees of the constituency account.

The Celia Larkin loan - one of many details raised by the Mahon Tribunal to spark public concern - has embarrassed Ahern's cabinet colleagues. When asked about revelations at Dublin Castle, Tnaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) Brian Cowan, the man endorsed by Ahern as successor, replied, "I don't discuss the issue with the Taoiseach. The Taoiseach is handling that in his own way in compliance with the terms of reference [of the tribunal]."

Fianna Fil's coalition partners, the Green Party, have also remained silent about the issue. However, party chairman Dan Boyle in a radio interview said that the Taoiseach's performance at the tribunal and the seemingly endless list of unaccounted-for payments were "not something that is lending towards the proper practice of government.

"He won't be putting himself forward as Taoiseach at the next general election," said Boyle. "We're now in a period of time that we have to find out, discover from the Taoiseach himself, when he feels his time for leaving within this period of government is. We're probably coming close to a time when his own party colleagues will look for finality on that."

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