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Cunning, charming Ahern to lead Ireland in challenging times

June 26, 1997

DUBLIN, Ireland (AP) _ John Bruton failed win support from the Irish parliament today for another term as prime minister, clearing the way for Fianna Fail leader Bertie Ahern to assume the post.

Bruton’s leadership bid lost by 87 votes to 75 in the Irish Dail, or parliament. Lawmakers were set to vote this evening on Ahern’s bid.

Ahern waged an aggressive presidential-style campaign across the Irish Republic that helped his Fianna Fail party win 77 seats June 6 in the Dail, Ireland’s 166-seat lawmaking chamber of parliament. That vanquished Bruton, who no longer had enough votes in his three-party coalition to retain power.

Ahern is expected to receive the required 83 votes thanks to a formal alliance with the four lawmakers of the small Progressive Democrats party and a looser deal with at least two eccentric independents.

The 45-year-old Dubliner’s charm and backroom cunning have won him friends and allies at many levels of society. Those skills will be put to the test in managing a minority government, a booming economy and shaky peacemaking efforts in neighboring Northern Ireland.

Ahern celebrated his win at his favorite local pub in his native Drumcondra, in Dublin’s rough north side. The politician who had campaigned on a ``zero tolerance″ attitude to rising crime was politely kicked out by police when the festivities went on past legal licensing hours.

He has spent the past two weeks doing what observers say he does best: cutting party and personal deals to ensure he locks up enough support for today’s vote.

Ahern’s Cabinet, to be announced later today, should include several firsts:

_Progressive Democrats leader Mary Harney will be the first female deputy prime minister in the 75-year history of Ireland as an independent state.

_A grandson and granddaughter of Ireland’s dominant figure of this century, Eamon de Valera, will receive Cabinet posts.

_Ahern himself is the first prime minister with an openly broken-down marriage.

Ahern separated from his wife, Miriam, 10 years ago and, rare in this traditionally conservative Catholic land, later went public with his relationship with his Dublin Central constituency secretary, Cecilia Larkin.

Larkin remains a full-time Fianna Fail worker and often accompanies Ahern in public, providing a barometer for how social attitudes are shifting in this rapidly modernizing nation.

Although Ahern backed successful moves to legalize divorce in Ireland in 1995, the betting is he won’t file for one himself. He remains extremely close with his two daughters, whom he took to a local horse track after his election victory. And he’s a devout Catholic, blessing himself after daily prayers in the Dail.

Ahern’s training was as an accountant but he was attracted to politics early on, being first elected to the Dail in 1977 and later to the Dublin local government as well, serving as the capital’s lord mayor in 1986-87.

His backroom negotiating abilities and grasp of economics allowed him to climb the party ladder quickly. Fianna Fail’s leader of the 1980s, Charles Haughey, took him under his wing and, when surveying his potential successors, approvingly called Ahern ``the best _ the most skillful, the most devious and the most cunning of them all.″

To maintain Fianna Fail’s central populist position in politics, Ahern has been elected on a platform that in normal economic times could never be delivered.

He’s promised to cut income tax, increase welfare and state-provided medical care, hire 1,200 more police, and create 2,000 more prison spaces _ all while keeping government spending near Ireland’s low inflation.

Ahern also wants to take a more aggressive role in the Northern Ireland peace talks.

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