Business of Joint Committee.

I will defer the discussion with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul so that we can pay tribute to our Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern.

I wish to place on the record of this committee my gratitude for what the Taoiseach has done for the country since he was elected to the Dáil in 1977 and my personal gratitude for what he did in helping me to get elected to the Dáil. While I will not delay the committee, it is very important that we pay our respects. Fianna Fáil Deputies and Senators are today very sad and in some cases devastated. Many tears have been shed.

I regret the way the media has treated him. Only yesterday, he had a number of legal victories in the High Court which were not reported to the same extent as other matters. The media has a huge responsibility in this regard and a case to answer. That is not to take away from what the Taoiseach has done or to take from the dignity of his departure. I thank him for everything he has done.

Like Deputy Byrne, I wish to place on record the wonderful achievements of the Taoiseach over his many years in Government and in his holding of various ministerial jobs. He was outstanding as Minister for Labour, as the portfolio was known then, when he put together the national wage agreements between the unions and employers. What he did with regard to the Northern Ireland situation will never be surpassed. He played a major role in ensuring we have peace and prosperity on this island.

His departure is sad. I was shocked when I heard he was departing because I know what he has done in terms of commitment to this country in the past ten years. Even his hardest critics in this country would agree that he has left us a wonderful economic situation, and while there is a downturn in economic prospects at present, it is still one of the best countries in Europe to live in from an economic perspective. The Taoiseach has many more achievements I will not go into today but I am sure we will get an opportunity in the coming months to wish the Taoiseach well in whatever he does in the future.

I wish to place on record my strong and personal appreciation of the Taoiseach, not least what he has done for this country in terms of the peace process. Many people may have their criticisms of politicians — we would all fall into that category — because if one thing is sure and certain, it is that one will never please all of the people all of the time. However, in terms of his performance as Taoiseach, Minister, facilitator and peacemaker, Deputy Bertie Ahern has few if any equals. When the history books are written, I believe they will treat him very kindly, which is the only way he should be treated.

We were all surprised by his departure. However, it brings to mind a very sinister development in this country in recent years and one that pertains not only to the existing but also to previous Governments, namely, that the media have attempted to decide who is or is not to serve as a Minister, Minister of State or otherwise. This was the case not least at the previous general election when the media got it so wrong they have been in an unforgiving mood ever since. There is more than a little evidence to suggest this is the case.

As a peacemaker, the Taoiseach has few equals. I am on this planet a few years and I have many relatives in south Armagh, a part of Northern Ireland that would have seen its fair share of troubles. People from all sides of the divide have been fair and balanced in their appreciation of Bertie Ahern and what he has done. He has given real meaning to the word "achievement", not least in political terms. One of his greatest strengths has been that of facilitator. He has always displayed a great capacity to bring opposing sides together and to find that always elusive middle ground.

I want to believe, and know I am right in believing, that the Taoiseach has a future role in this country. At 56 years of age, there are many good years left in Deputy Bertie Ahern. He has given many good years for this country. Under his steady leadership we have seen unprecedented prosperity, which it is to be hoped will continue into the future. I wish him well. I am deeply saddened at his departure.

I join members in paying tribute to the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern. I too am saddened. It is a very sad day both for Fianna Fáil and the country that Deputy Bertie Ahern will no longer lead the people. He has four and a half weeks left to serve and I know he will pack a huge amount into that time.

The Taoiseach has a unique way with the people and can adapt to any situation, whether chatting to people on the street, addressing the House of Lords or going to Capitol Hill. I wish him well on that visit, when he will represent the country as our elected Taoiseach. Wherever he was in the world, he proudly represented Ireland.

I thank the Chairman for his support, having heard him on radio recently. I was and still am proud to support the Taoiseach. I hope the Opposition and the media will allow the tribunal, which is costing a fortune, to bring forward its report. I believe he will be vindicated.

I welcome the opportunity to say a few words on this important day. I pay tribute to the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, for the work he did on the peace initiative. He finalised the work of many of his predecessors. While he was fortunate to be there at the right time, it does not take away from his ability in finalising the Good Friday Agreement. As one who lives much closer to the Border than most, I appreciate this fact. Unfortunately, south Armagh is one of the areas in which difficulties remain. I hope we will all be able to solve them.

While the decision was inevitable, I congratulate the Taoiseach on making it. It is important for the country that we return to the issues of economics, jobs, health and so on. Tonight, I will speak for longer on the issue of a 99 year old who, for the first time in nine years, is being forced to pay towards her keep in a nursing home. These are the bread and butter matters we must discuss. I have no intention of raising many others regarding the economic situation.

I wish the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, all the best for the future. I hope he will be satisfied in whatever role he plays and that he and his family can get on with their lives. I pay him tribute in respect of his work on the Northern Ireland issue.

Ba mhaith liom i dtosach báire a rá gur lá stairiúil é seo. Ba bhreá liom cúpla focal a chur leis an méid a dúirt mo chomhghleacaithe mar gheall ar an Taoiseach. Tréaslaím leis as ucht an méid oibre atá déanta aige — na héachtaí a rinne sé ar son na tíre seo. Ní amháin sin, ach guím freisin go mbainfidh sé leas agus tairbhe as na blianta atá roimhe sa Dáil — cúpla bliain, ar aon nós. Ina dhiadh sin, tá súil agam go nglacfaidh sé páirt gníomhach i saol na tíre ar leibhéal cultúrtha nó cibé leibheál eile a oireann. Tá an méid sin buanna aige, is dócha, gur deacair iad a chomhaireamh.

It is a momentous day and I add my words of tribute to the Taoiseach. He has fascinated the country for a long time. Whether people agree with him or are in his party, they must accept that he is a significantly talented individual who has served the country with considerable distinction. The Irish phrase "ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann" is apt. I was reminded of his friend and opposite number in Britain, Tony Blair, who, like the Taoiseach, had a decade in office and, as happens to all politicians, became less popular over time. There was an inevitable progress towards departure. Like Tony Blair, the Taoiseach will be a difficult act to follow. His great achievements have been enumerated, as they will continue to be — his efforts in social partnership; the peace process stands out as an example to countries around the world; and his stimulation of economic success, although he would be the first to acknowledge that he was not the only contributor to Ireland's economic success of recent years.

Other aspects of the Taoiseach are also fascinating. He is much closer to the heart of Ireland than many of his colleagues. He is interested in the GAA and cultural matters, a traditional man in many ways who is willing to discuss faith, values and so on. However, he has an enigmatic side. Even while engaging in all these areas he is seen as pragmatic. I did not agree with everything he and the Government did in recent years, but I will be the first to acknowledge that, for example, he took a principled position in 2002 in trying to resolve the difficult abortion issue by introducing an honourable referendum proposal, which will also stand to his credit. He lives for politics and we hope that he will continue to find ways to be active and to use his significant talents outside the powerful role of Taoiseach. There is no doubt that people will be queuing to avail of his advice and abilities. I wish him well.

The tribunal raised questions that must be answered. I am not a fan of the media frenzy. I worry about the way in which the tribunal's interaction with the media may cut across all types of important principles such as the presumption of innocence. That said, when issues arise in the media and tribunals, it is impossible to ignore them. The Taoiseach should be paid tribute for making a decision in the national interest regardless of the outcome of the tribunal's proceedings.

I have not prepared anything because I did not realise this discussion would occur.

That has not stopped the Deputy previously.

I was outed on RTE today when David McCullough stated that he understood Charlie O'Connor from Tallaght was crying this morning, which I was. I shed a tear. I have no hesitation in saying that the Taoiseach has supported me. While people smile when I mention Tallaght, he has always had a particular interest in my constituency, not only because of me, but because he used to go to Piperstown where his sister lived in his young days. He has always had an affinity for and relationship with Dublin South-West. Every other Deputy will claim the Taoiseach, which is fair enough, and I will certainly do so.

I am saddened by today's events. Last night on radio, I stated that I wanted the Taoiseach to go when he wanted to go. He appears to have taken my advice, although I am sure it was not about my comments last night. I wish him well. It is good to hear those not on the Fianna Fáil benches acknowledging his actions. Last night, I stated that even the Labour Party had commented in recent days on his great work. I hope all parties will do so. Irrespective of the issues of concern to the media, the Taoiseach has done his job and served his country well. He has many achievements, of which the testimonials from other politicians, such as Tony Blair and Lord Trimble, are proof positive. It is a sad day for the country and democracy, but I wish the Taoiseach well.

I associate myself with the comments of party colleagues. I have had the honour and privilege of being a constituency colleague of the Taoiseach, through which experience I have learned much. I will not get into why or how this situation came about. While I have the highest admiration and respect for him as an individual, the Taoiseach, our party leader and, in particular, a constituency colleague, I have the privilege of calling him my friend.

With my colleagues, I pay tribute to the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern. When he was last elected Taoiseach, I crossed the floor of the Dáil, put my hand out and wished him well. I wish him well in his retirement. He is making the right decision in the interest of the country. It must move out from beneath the cloud of recent months and must move on with the body of work to be done in the health service, education and the economy. On a personal level, I wish the Taoiseach and his family well.

I have no hesitation in acknowledging much of the good work done by the Taoiseach, but I am sure there will be an opportunity in a broader forum than this — I do not mean to offend this forum — to acknowledge the Taoiseach's work and to have a lengthier discussion than this meeting will allow. My Dáil party leader, Deputy Ó Caoláin, will shortly do so in the House on the behalf of Sinn Féin Deputies.

I reiterate members' comments regarding the great work the Taoiseach did for the country. He has presided over unprecedented prosperity and economic success and has left a lasting legacy in the peace that now exists throughout the island. As Chairman, I wish him every success in whatever role he holds. In 1997, when I was elected in Kerry South, I came to Dublin. He telephoned me to invite me to his office and to join him in Government. He did the same after the last election and was an honourable, decent, straight, hard-working man, a man of his word. Anything he promised he honoured to the last detail. I will respect him, regardless of tribunals or anyone else.

I wish him all the luck in the world in the years ahead. We have not heard the last of him yet.

The joint committee went into private session at 2.50 p.m. and resumed in public session at 3.05 p.m.