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Testing times for Bertie as he loses his Merc perk

BERTIE Ahern was today about to lose his most prized possession -- his garda- driven Mercedes S Class worth about €150,000.

It emerged today that one of his last requests as Taoiseach was to keep the limousine on his retirement.

His incoming successor Brian Cowen acceded to the request at the time, meaning Ahern was chauffeured around in the height of luxury.

"Bertie loves that car. It gives him status; it's like a calling card, particularly with the armed garda driver," said a pal today.

But Bertie's days as Ireland's most pampered pensioner are set to end.

New Justice Minister Alan Shatter has ordered that only he, the President, the Taoiseach and the Tanaiste will keep the privilege.

The Chief Justice and Director of Public Prosecutions will also retain their cars.

The new arrangements will come into effect for ministers by May 1, and in three months in the case of former Taoisigh and Presidents.

It means Mr Ahern -- who served as Taoiseach between 1997 and 2008 -- faces having to sit a driving test.

He confirmed in 2003 that he did not hold a driving licence because of his use of a State car and driver for the past 20 years. He is understood to have got a driving licence in the 1970s but allowed it to lapse.

Mr Ahern, who lives off Griffith Avenue in Dublin 9, would probably sit the test in Raheny, the nearest test centre to his home. The alternative would be to take public transport or hire a civilian driver at his own expense.

Brian Cowen, Albert Reynolds, John Bruton, Garrett FitzGerald and Liam Cosgrave will also lose the perk.

Meanwhile, Fianna Fail has been forced to give up having meetings on the fifth floor of Leinster House.

Fine Gael will now take over the rooms -- where Fianna Fail has met and worked since the early 1960s -- as the largest party in the Dail.

Fianna Fail will hold its meetings in Fine Gael's old rooms in the basement of the new extension to Leinster House.

Justice Minister Alan Shatter wrote to Mr Ahern and all former Taoisigh and Presidents today about the decision to overhaul the state car system.

Senior and junior ministers, the Ceann Comhairle and Attorney General will have to drive their own cars.

However, they will be entitled to claim mileage and hire a civilian driver who are paid for by the State.

cmurphy@herald.ie

Under the old system, a ministerial car cost around ?280,000 per minister every year in salary costs, fuel and maintenance, with the biggest expense being the salaries garda drivers.

comurphy@herald.ie