Harney's is longest ministerial overseas trip for St Patrick's Day


Busy promotional schedules have been drawn up for 23 State visits, each of which must keep costs to a minimum, writes HARRY McGEE, Political Correspondent

THE 15-day visit by Minister for Health Mary Harney to New Zealand is the longest trip being taken by the 23 Ministers and junior Ministers travelling abroad for St Patrick’s Day.

In keeping with Taoiseach Brian Cowen’s instruction to keep costs to a minimum, only 10 of the trips will take a week or more. Most of these are long-haul or involve multiple destinations.

Ms Harney has come under criticism for being abroad on what the Opposition has described as a lengthy visit to Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington, during the controversy surrounding X-rays and unopened referral letters in Tallaght hospital.

The next longest trip is that being taken by Minister of State for Enterprise Billy Kelleher to Australia. His visit to Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth will take 12 days.

Three Ministers are on nine-day trips. They are: Minister for Communications Eamon Ryan, who is visiting New Delhi, Mumbai and Singapore; Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe, who is visiting Tokyo and Seoul; and Minister of State for Environment Michael Finneran, who is visiting Beijing and Shanghai.

The visit by Minister for Transport Noel Dempsey to Georgia and Savannah is taking eight days, while Minister for Community and Gaeltacht Affairs Éamon Ó Cuív will spend eight days visiting Warsaw and Vienna.

Likewise, Minister of State for Labour Affairs Dara Calleary will spend a minimum of seven days abroad, while visiting Toronto and Boston.

It also emerged yesterday that Government Chief Whip Pat Carey had to cancel his planned trip to Houston in Texas. The cancellation happened because of procedural wrangles in the Dáil on Wednesday over the Finance Bill. Mr Carey was obliged to stay in the Dáil that afternoon, which resulted in him missing his scheduled flight.

In his statement announcing this year’s St Patrick’s Day visits, Mr Cowen said he had instructed all government departments to ensure that costs were kept to a minimum.

“Unless there is a compelling reason to do otherwise, first-class flights, limousines, hotel suites and VIP lounges will not be used by Ministers.”

In comparison with previous years, especially pre-2008, the number of trips abroad has fallen, as has their duration. While first- class travel is unlikely to have been used by any Minister, most travelling to long-haul destinations will have flown business class. Details of the costs of flights, accommodation and other expenses will be made available later this year.

All Government departments yesterday released the itineraries of Ministers while abroad on official duties. Most have a heavy schedule, with events organised in most cities by Enterprise Ireland, Tourism Ireland and by An Bord Bia. All Ministers will also attend St Patrick’s Day celebrations and events in host cities.

The number of people travelling with Ministers has been reduced dramatically compared with previous years. Few Ministers are travelling with spouses and partners and are mainly accompanied by either one or two officials.

Martin Mansergh, for example is being accompanied to Amsterdam by the chief engineer of the Office of Public Works. There they will look at flood defence systems installed by Dutch companies, who have long experience in this area.