EMBATTLED Health Minister Mary Harney is facing growing calls to resign after the latest controversy to hit the health sector was branded a "national scandal".
However, Taoiseach Brian Cowen rallied to her defence last night over the unchecked X-rays controversy and resisted growing calls for the former leader of the PDs to be sacked from Cabinet.
He insisted the minister, who has endured a series of damaging controversies and motions of no confidence, still had his full confidence.
But opposition parties claimed it was simply "unbelievable" that Ms Harney had not realised the full extent of the Tallaght Hospital X-ray controversy until Tuesday, despite being told last December.
Fine Gael, Labour and Sinn Fein all called for Ms Harney to be urgently removed from the Department of Health, claiming the latest controversy was "one scandal too many".
Fine Gael health spokesman James Reilly threatened to table another motion of no confidence in the minister if she retained her job in the imminent cabinet reshuffle.
However, Mr Cowen offered the minister his fulsome support.
"She has been a reforming Minister for Health and Children and has brought about more changes for the reform of the health sector than any of her predecessors," Mr Cowen told the Dail.
"She has been absolutely committed to bringing forward quality assurance mechanisms in the system so that we have accountability and can deal with any issues that arise."
Earlier yesterday, the minister revealed she had learned of the 58,000 unchecked X-rays in December. But she insisted she only realised the scale of the problem on Tuesday.
That revelation was met with exasperation by Labour leader Eamon Gilmore, who queried why the minister had not "gone on alert" when she first learnt of the problems with the X-rays.
Mr Gilmore said that Ms Harney "didn't appear to take it fairly seriously" when she was initially told.
"What did she do between the time she was told about it in December and now when it has come into the public domain?" Mr Gilmore asked.
"I have a lot of time for the minister -- she has been a very competent minister in other ways -- but she has been a hopeless Minister for Health and Children and it is time she was moved."
Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny said that the controversy was an example of "abject and blatant failure" by the Taoiseach's Government and his ministers. He branded it a "national catastrophe" and a "national scandal".
Previously, Ms Harney has been engulfed in controversies surrounding the withdrawal of medical cards, a reversal of plans to introduce the cervical cancer vaccine and the massive review of breast scans in the Midland Regional Hospital in Portlaoise.
The latest political storm comes amid increasing disquiet among Fianna Fail backbenchers about Ms Harney remaining on as Health Minister in the imminent reshuffle.
Many backbenchers are questioning why Ms Harney is being kept on in the Cabinet after the disappearance of her PD party and the lack of a commitment from her to run again in the next general election.
In an attempt to deflect attention away from Ms Harney, Tanaiste and Enterprise Minister Mary Coughlan claimed that "shabbiness" in the health system was to blame for the fact that X-rays were never looked at by a radiologist.
The Tanaiste admitted she wasn't fully informed about the situation, but there had been a "failure of the system".
Speaking from New Zealand yesterday morning, Ms Harney said it was "unacceptable medical practice" that the X-rays weren't reviewed.
"We will never have a system in which errors don't occur but what's important here is that when they do, the bad practice stops, we carry out an enquiry and we learn lessons," she said.
While expressing regret at delayed diagnosis in relation to two patients, she added that the current issue was not a "huge scandal of misdiagnosis".
"What we know is the 57,000 X-rays were not read by a radiologist," she said.
"If a radiologist doesn't report on X-rays in a hospital you cannot seriously believe that that is a matter that the minister has direct personal responsibility for," she added.