IRISH LEADER QUITS OVER CASH PROBE; Ahern denies bribe claims.
IRELAND'S prime minister Bertie Ahern yesterday announced he will resign amid a deepening scandal over his finances.
The leader, who took a key role in the Northern Ireland peace process and oversaw the development of his country's Celtic Tiger economy, will step down on May 6 after 11 years at the top.
Ahern had become the focus of the Mahon Tribunal, an 11-year probe into planning corruption and payments to politicians by businessmen.
He denied any wrongdoing but sources said his party, fearing a backlash at the polls, were beginning to move against him.
In an emotional announcement on the steps of Dublin's government buildings, Ahern insisted he had never taken a bribe.
He said: "While I would be the first to admit that I have made mistakes in my life and in my career, one mistake I never made is to enrich myself by misusing the trust of the people.
"I have never received a corrupt payment and I have never done anything to dishonour any office I have held."
Generous tributes poured in from old friends of the taoiseach.
As he attended the NATO summit in Budapest, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Ahern would be missed on the international leaders' circuit.
He added: "I think the whole of Britain will want to thank Bertie Ahern for what was an invaluable and historic contribution to the peace process."
Tony Blair said: "He will have, deservedly, a central place in his nation's political history and much more widely. A remarkable man with a remarkable record of achievement."
And in a measure of just how far Northern Ireland has progressed, First Minister Ian Paisley - who lobbed snowballs at Ahern's predecessor Sean Lemass in 1965 - paid an affectionate tribute.
He said: "In sharp contrast with other Irish prime ministers, I enjoyed a good working relationship with Mr Ahern because he was willing to recognise the position of the unionist population, that they had no interest in being part of a united Ireland.
"He and I operated as equals, not as one trying to assimilate the other."
Paisley himself will stand down as leader next month, just a few days after Ahern.
First Minister Alex Salmond used the occasion to attempt to score political points, saying: "The accomplishments of the Irish Celtic Tiger economy demonstrate the advantage of being a small independent nation in Europe."
Back in the Irish Republic, the Fianna Fail leader's announcement surprised many people.
Despite questions over his finances, the 56-year-old, who has led the party for 14 years since succeeding Albert Reynolds, last year won a third term in government - only the second Irish PM to do so after Lemass.
Among the cabinet colleagues who stood beside him as he made his statement was finance minister Brian Cowen, who has been installed as the favourite to succeed him.
Foreign minister Dermot Ahern, enterprise minister Micheal Martin and education minister Mary Hanafin were also tipped.
EMOTIONAL: Bertie Ahern yesterday after announcing he is to stand down PA; FAVOURITE: Brian Cowen