Opposition parties have called for the Taoiseach to resign over an increasing controversy about his personal finances.
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern's popularity has dropped to a historic low after his personal finances started to be investigated by the Mahon Tribunal following allegations that he had received payments from a land developer in exchange of political favours, which he denies.
The Mahon Tribunal or Tribunal of Inquiry Into Certain Planning Matters and Payments is a public inquiry established in 1997 by the Irish House of Representatives, the Dáil Éireann, to investigate allegations of corrupt payments to politicians in exchange of political decisions on planning permissions or other issues.
Last January, Fine Gael asked the Standards in Public Office Commission to investigate the Taoiseach's declaration of tax compliance from the year 2002, after it was disclosed that Mr. Ahern does not currently have a tax clearance certificate.
In Ireland, all elected representatives are required to have a tax clearance certificate. Mr. Ahern could not obtain a tax clearance certificate but instead he submitted an Application Statement confirming that his tax affairs were currently under discussion with the Irish Revenue Office.
A poll released at the end of January by the newspaper The Irish Times showed Mr. Ahern's popularity tumbling as a consequence of his inability to produce a tax clearance certificate and his ongoing testimony to the Mahon Tribunal.
According to the Irish Times poll, only one in seven believe the Taoiseach has told all the truth on his tax affairs.
For the first time, Bertie Ahern's popularity is below Fine Gael's leader Enda Kenny.
Although the poll showed the public did not believe the Taoiseach, public support for the governing party Fianna Fáil remains strong, with opposition party Fine Gael growing in support yet failing to overtake them despite the controversy.
The public debate over the Taoiseach's tax affairs reached new heights last 11th of February as Mr Ahern's lawyers lodged a surprise High Court challenge to stop the tribunal inquiring into certain aspects of his personal finances.
The Taoiseach denied he was trying to hide anything and said the legal action was a “point of principle” to challenge certain "manifestly unconstitutional" inquiries on his banking transactions by the Mahon Tribunal.
The opposition parties accused him immediately of either trying to hide something or to buy time.
Irish Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore said the Taoiseach's court action was nothing to do with parliamentary privilege but about protecting himself.
Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny said the Taoiseach cannot claim to be cooperating with the inquiry when trying to dictate to it what questions it can ask him.
Mr. Kenny accused the Taoiseach of attempting to delay the work of the tribunal and reminded that Mr. Ahern's move could increase the costs of the Tribunal.
Established in 1997, the Mahon Tribunal is the longest running and most expensive Irish public inquiry. The Public Accounts Committee issued a statement confirming that the inquiry has cost the State €72.7 million in legal fees and running costs since it started. Judge Alan Mahon estimates that the final bill for the inquiry will be €300 million.
As the Tribunal resumed the inquiry last February 22nd, the Taoiseach admitted for the first time that he did not pay tax on payments he got when he was Minister for Finance in the 1990s.
Mr. Ahern, who had previously told the Tribunal that certain payments to his account in 1994 and 1995 were actually political donations, changed his story and claimed that one of the cheques was a payment from his brother after the death of their father, and was unable to explain the source of another cheque cashed on the same day.
Following the latest revelations about the Taoiseach's tax affairs, opposition parties branded Mr. Ahern a "national embarrassment" and called for his resignation.
Fine Gael called Mr. Ahern a "tax dodger" and claimed he was now facing questions about payments worth €495,000 in today's terms.
Irish Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore claimed that Mr. Ahern's determination to "cling to power" was doing the country a disservice.
"Instead of leading a Government which is tackling a deteriorating economy, health service cutbacks and inadequate public services, Mr. Ahern spends his days spinning yarns to the tribunal about huge amounts of money that were lodged to his accounts”, said Mr Gilmore.
A new poll published by the newspaper Sunday Business Post in the first week of March showed that half of those surveyed no longer trusted Mr. Ahern to run the country.
Despite the calls for his resignation, the Taoiseach insisted that he intends to stay in office until 2012 and claimed that he has the full support of the Fianna Fáil party.
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