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Ahern fights back: Bertie eyes Irish presidency after quitting

By Noel McAdam

Outgoing Taoiseach Bertie Ahern today insisted the Dublin Government will continue to help loyalist communities in Northern Ireland move beyond the pain of the past.

As he set about restoring his own bruised reputation, 24 hours after announcing his intention to resign next month, Mr Ahern also warned republican dissidents will face the full force of the law.

In a speech focussing on the "momentous milestone" of the Good Friday Agreement, Mr Ahern said loyalist paramilitary groups have unfortunately not decommissioned and a minority remain wedded to criminality.

"For our part, we remain committed to helping loyalist communities move beyond the conflict of the past and to share in the peace and prosperity which is the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland," he said.

"We applaud the leadership shown by many people in those communities who are moving on and are working daily with the rest of us to make a better future.

"There are also small, unrepresentative groups on the other side who would propel us all back to a time of despair and anguish. They will continue to face the full rigour of the law, on both sides of the border," he went on.

Speaking at University College, Dublin, Mr Ahern also reiterated his commitment to a united Ireland but contrasted Northern Ireland now with the year of the Agreement, 1998.

"Ten years ago, Northern Ireland was scarred by heavily militarised barracks and watchtowers, many border roads remained closed, and there was a very large troop presence across the North," he said.

"Today, the physical landscape is transformed, the hardware of conflict is gone and the remaining troops are confined to barracks."

Video: Bertie quits

Just 24 hours after announcing his departure, the outgoing Taoiseach and Fianna Fail leader was attempting to underpin his legacy as the Irish premier who helped bring peace to Northern Ireland.

It also emerged today that Mr Ahern is actively considering running for the Republic's Presidency, to succeed Mary McAleese, but will not attempt to remain as a TD at the next election.

The Evening Herald newspaper in Dublin reported that Mr Ahern has confided in friends that he would be more interested in the President's position, which becomes vacant in three years, than in the presidency of the European Council. Earlier this year Mr Ahern joked on RTE that he would go for the Presidency after quitting politics, but colleagues say he is serious about the move.

Before today's setpiece event in University College, Dublin - one of a series marking the tenth anniversary of the Agreement - Mr Ahern said it was a "valuable opportunity" to reflect on future relations on the island of Ireland.

This afternoon Secretary of State Shaun Woodward also addressed the the 'From Conflict to Consensus' conference and praised Mr Ahern as a "true statesman" who "will live in our history as a true architect and ambassador for peace".

"Bertie Ahern brought everything to bear to achieve peace in Northern Ireland," Mr Woodward said. "His enthusiasm, his dedication, his optimism, his charm - and, of course, time.

"And there is no better example of this than during a time of huge personal sadness when he lost his mother during the work of the Good Friday Agreement."

It also emerged today Mr Ahern is to greet his peace process partners Tony Blair and former United States Senator George Mitchell at an event in Dublin next week organised by the Turn The Tide of Suicide (3Ts) group.

Funds raised at a dinner are to go to a range of North/South initiatives, including research support for an all-Ireland suicide survey.

Meanwhile, a new leader-in-waiting for Fianna Fail is to be elected within the next few weeks ready to step in when Mr Ahern steps down on May 6.

The favourite to replace Mr Ahern is the Tanaiste and Minister for Finance, Brian Cowen, who may even succeed him unopposed.

If he becomes Taoiseach, Mr Cowen is likely to slot into Mr Ahern's place at the major investment conference in Belfast being hosted by First Minister Ian Paisley shortly before his own departure.

The DUP leader once jokingly made disparaging remarks about Mr Cowen's appearance, remarking his lips were the result of his mother gluing him to the floor.

The quip caused outrage at the time - the Assembly elections of 2003 - and was criticised by Ulster Unionist Sir Reg Empey and SDLP leader Mark Durkan who said it was " reprehensible".

Belfast Telegraph


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