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Irish Minister Will Try to Form New Government : Politics: Bertie Ahern is named to replace toppled premier as party leader. He calls peace a 'priority.'

November 20, 1994| From Associated Press

DUBLIN, Ireland — Finance Minister Bertie Ahern was picked Saturday by Ireland's largest party to try to form a new government, and he immediately put peace in Northern Ireland at the top of his agenda.

"Peace is still the most important issue and priority for us," said Ahern, who could become prime minister if he can build a coalition for his Fianna Fail party.

Ahern must lure back the Labor Party, which brought down the government of former Fianna Fail leader Albert Reynolds last week when it left the coalition over the appointment of a religious conservative to Ireland's High Court.

Known as one of the strongest negotiators in Reynolds' coalition, the 43-year-old Ahern said he would "like to bring any talent I have for conciliation to bridge the political divisions in the north."

He must heal the rift with the Labor Party by Tuesday, when Parliament is scheduled to vote on forming a new government.

Reynolds, 60, resigned as prime minister and party chief Thursday after Labor pulled out of his coalition government over the appointment of his attorney general to the High Court.

Labor said Harry Whelehan was unfit for promotion because as attorney general he had failed to extradite to Northern Ireland a priest facing child molestation charges there. Whelehan also resigned Thursday.

Reynolds argued that allowing his government to fall would jeopardize a chance for peace in Northern Ireland, where the Irish Republican Army has declared a cease-fire in its 25-year-old campaign against British rule.

Following the cease-fire, Reynolds met with Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein--the IRA's political ally--and had prodded Britain to speed up negotiations.

Ahern said he will not be rushed into coalition talks.

"We are not going to be forced into either government or opposition," he said. "We will do what is right for Fianna Fail, and then we will make our decisions."

But Fianna Fail is expected to hold talks soon with Labor, which is too small to lead but too substantial not to be accommodated as a junior partner.

Its leader, Dick Spring, was the highly regarded deputy prime minister and foreign minister under Reynolds.

Born in Dublin, Ahern was elected to the Dail, the lower house of Ireland's Parliament, in 1977. He joined the Cabinet as labor minister in 1987.

Ahern was considered a contender for the Fianna Fail leadership in 1991 when his mentor, Charles Haughey, resigned as prime minister. But Ahern stood aside in favor of Reynolds and was rewarded with the finance minister's job.

Ahern's sole involvement in recent peace moves has been participating in sessions of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation, Reynolds' project for giving Sinn Fein a forum.

Boyish and famously unstylish, Ahern is known as a pragmatist in economic policy but a conservative on social issues. A profile in the Irish Times this week said he had reservations about legislation that made contraceptives more widely available, and he might oppose any moves to legalize divorce in this overwhelming Roman Catholic country.

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