Ireland Names New Prime Minister

Haughey's resignation over phone-tapping scandal marks end of an era in Irish politics

IRISH Prime Minister Charles Haughey will likely be replaced as party leader later today by Albert Reynolds, his former finance minister, fired from his Cabinet last November.

As the 77 members of the ruling Fianna Fail Party meet to elect his successor, the end comes to the Haughey era in Irish politics. It has been 12 years marked by controversy, ending in scandal and dominated by Mr. Haughey's larger-than-life personality.

As taoiseach (TEE-shock), or prime minister, four times since 1979, Haughey survived no fewer than four challenges to his leadership of Fianna Fail, the country's largest political party. But he was forced to announce he was stepping down last week, as embarrassing new claims surfaced in an old phone-tapping scandal.

His coalition partners, the Progressive Democrats, gave him a tough ultimatum that either he resign as taoiseach, or the party would pull out of government, making a general election likely.

Known as the Houdini of Irish politics - for his legendary ability to wriggle out of tight corners, and fend off leadership challenges - this time Haughey found himself with no room to maneuver. He agreed to resign quietly, without a fight.

Both the party and public mood had swung dramatically against him. In the polls his support touched an all-time low, with three out of four saying he should go. Only one in five Irish believed him when he denied all knowledge of the wire taps.

Ten years earlier, in 1982, illegal taps were placed on the phones of two political journalists, Bruce Arnold and Geraldine Kennedy, by Haughey's justice minister, Sean Doherty.

In 1983, after a change of government, when news of the scandal first broke, Mr. Doherty denied Haughey knew anything about the taps. But just two weeks ago he changed his story.

Claiming he was fed up with being cast as the public scapegoat for the scandal, Doherty confessed he had lied in 1983 to protect his leader, and maintained he gave him copies of the transcripts of those taped conversations. Haughey dismissed the claims as "absolutely false."

Who to believe became a primary issue. When the Irish public found Doherty's claims more credible than the prime minister's denial, Haughey's career was left in shambles.

Haughey leaves office with a mixed record of success, where his promise proved greater than his achievement. On the economy, he became a late convert to Thatcherite reforms, and since 1987 has cut spending, lowered taxes, and raised economic growth. But Ireland still has more than 20 percent of its population out of work, the highest in the European Community.

An innovative politician with a broad range of concerns, including the environment and the arts, Haughey will be remembered by many as the pioneer of major reforms in welfare, providing free travel, free electricity, and free phones for the elderly.

Haughey's most enduring legacy may be be in the arts, where his most imaginative response was to make Ireland a tax haven for creative artists, where all earnings on their creative work remain tax free.

The circumstances around Haughey's final downfall are full of irony for him. Doherty was one of about five Fianna Fail deputies who masterminded a backbench revolt which paved the way for Haughey to succeed former Prime Minister Jack Lynch in 1979. Twelve years later he became the prime architect of Haughey's demise.

In November, after Mr. Reynolds led an unsuccessful bid to oust Haughey, he was fired as finance minister. But last weekend when Finance Minister Bertie Ahern quit the leadership race to back Reynolds, he ensured Reynold's victory.

The Dail (parliament) is set to confirm Reynolds as prime minister next Tuesday.

Reynolds, a millionaire businessman with broad experience in government, was publicly ridiculed by Haughey as heading "a country and western" alliance of rural deputies.

But in a party riven by division for the past 20 years he is seen as a healing figure to unite the factions. A pragmatist, he is committed to open and honest government, and as premier he will act more as chairman than chief in his conduct of government affairs. But he is likely to bring few major policy innovations.

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