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President McAleese leads the tributes

PRESIDENT President Mary McAleese yesterday led tributes to Taoiseach Bertie Ahern after she received the formal notice of his intention to resign.

She was later joined by religious and business figures and others in public life in reacting to the news that the 56-year-old would quit his post on May 6.

In a short statement issued an hour after Mr Ahern signalled his resignation, Mrs McAleese said that he deserved credit for his contributions to the economy and to the peace process in the North.

"Bertie Ahern will be remembered as one of the outstanding politicians of his generation both nationally and internationally," said Mrs McAleese in her statement.

Last night, Ireland's most senior Catholic, Cardinal Sean Brady, said the Taoiseach's career would be characterised by his hard-working style and help for those in need, both in his constituency and beyond.

"Bertie Ahern is widely regarded as the industrial relations architect of the social partnership process which has underpinned Ireland's buoyant economy over the last decade," he said in a statement.

"By providing leadership in bringing about permanent peace to our island and by nurturing and growing the mutually respectful and good relationship which now exists between Ireland and Britain, Bertie Ahern's legacy to civil society in Ireland is enormous.

"It was due to his initiative that the very significant process of Church-State dialogue has got under way and continues. This is another important element of his legacy."

SIPTU president Jack O'Connor said history could not deny Mr Ahern's role in the success of the economy and the arrival of peace in the north.

But Mr O'Connor added: "His decision to resign places an obligation on all our political leaders to focus on the key issues confronting us."

These, said Mr O'Connor, included "growing inequality in our society and the creeping privatisation and diminution of our public health service".

The Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, Dr John Neill, said Mr Ahern had helped to develop new links between the State, the various Christian churches and other faith groups.

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He added: "While the Good Friday Agreement and its implementation will be remembered as his greatest achievement, I think this work will also be regarded as a constructive legacy and I hope it will be built upon in the years to come."

Turlough O'Sullivan, director general of business and employers group IBEC, said Mr Ahern's ability to bring people together and to find consensus was unsurpassed.

"The hard work and intellectual skill involved is rarely appreciated or fully understood, because so much of this is not in public view," he said.

Mr Ahern's love of his beloved "Dubs" led to a warm tribute from Dublin GAA's county board which thanked Mr Ahern for his unstinting support of the team. "The Taoiseach has been a supporter of the Dublin club and county scene for over 30 years and many projects were completed as a result of his interest and support."

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