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Irish P.M. Ahern Makes Final Official Visit to Washington

Congress gave Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern an enthusiastic farewell Wednesday as he hailed ties between Ireland and the United States just days before he plans to step down as premier.

In one of his final acts on the world stage, Ahern also looked back on the peace he helped craft in Northern Ireland.

"After decades of progress, I am so proud to be the first Irish leader to inform the U.S. Congress that Ireland is at peace," he said.

Speaking at a joint meeting of the Senate and House of Representatives, Ahern said Ireland and the United States have a relationship forged by generations of Irish immigrants.

"To be Irish is to be at home in America," he said.

Ahern entered the packed chamber of the House to ceremony and a standing ovation.

The leader of the House, California Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi had invited Ahern two months ago in recognition of his peacemaking efforts and tenure as one of Europe's longest-serving leaders.

Ahern is widely credited with helping to achieve the Good Friday peace accord of 1998 for the neighboring British territory of Northern Ireland and for overseeing the longest economic expansion in Ireland's history.

The Irish economy, heavily dependent on the involvement of more than 600 U.S. companies, is facing a challenging period of slowing growth and rising unemployment.

Ahern arrived in Washington on Tuesday. The jet-lagged Irish delegation was awakened shortly after 4 a.m. Wednesday by a fire alarm at their hotel that forced the building's evacuation for about an hour. Ahern's office has released a statement saying a generator on the roof of the hotel overheated and burned out. The U.S. Secret Service took Ahern to an undisclosed "secure location" until everyone was allowed to return to their rooms.

He is traveling with his daughter Cecelia Ahern, 26, one of Ireland's most popular novelists.

The prime minister is stepping down May 6 as a judicial investigation proceeds into secret payments he received from businessmen in the 1990s. He is being replaced the following day by Finance Minister Brian Cowen.

Before making his shock resignation announcement this month, Ahern had faced mounting criticism for his shaky, unconvincing testimony to a decade-old corruption tribunal established by his own government.

Ahern initially claimed he received payments from friends in 1993 and 1994 to help him cope with a 1987 marital separation. But subsequent investigations indicated Ahern also got undisclosed payments in British pounds and U.S. dollars, which Ahern denies. The probe also indicated Ahern took party funds for his personal benefit.

The prime minister plans to meet President Bush on Wednesday afternoon, according to the Irish Embassy. The visit comes barely a month after the Irish premier was last in the White House to meet the U.S. leader for St. Patrick's Day.

Ahern also will be guest of honor at a congressional lunch hosted by the Friends of Ireland group in the House of Representatives.

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