TRANSPORT Minister Noel Dempsey was unapologetic last night about the timing of his Maltese break, saying there was never a "bad time to take a holiday".
The Meath TD said he was "entitled" to go on holidays abroad despite the risk posed to the road network by the severe weather conditions.
He said he had booked the holiday with his family in Malta before Christmas and had received a weather forecast showing "dry conditions" before leaving for the airport early last Tuesday.
"I think I'm entitled -- I think people are entitled to a holiday. I'm entitled to look after family commitments and that's what I did. I have public obligations and private obligations."
Mr Dempsey had been dubbed the "missing minister" by Fine Gael and had been called on to return home to deal with the crisis on the roads by Sinn Fein TD Caoimghin O Caolain.
One newspaper wrongly claimed he was in the Algarve while another had him holidaying in Miami.
Mr Dempsey also said the transport minister was responsible for policy and legislation, not gritting the roads.
"I can't think of one other item that could have been done if I was in the country which hasn't been done over the last four or five days. I don't think I would have been able to prevent the weather from happening whether I was in the country or out of the country," he said.
After attending his first meeting of the Emergency Response Co-ordination Committee (ERCC) in Dublin yesterday, Mr Dempsey attempted a joke to fend off questioning about his absence.
"I am glad things are improving so fast -- I'm only in the country two or three hours and the thaw has set in," he joked.
He said he had decided to cut his holiday short last Thursday because he had realised that his absence was becoming a distraction from the "very, very good work" being done by frontline staff. Mr Dempsey then booked the first available flight back last Saturday -- and returned to Dublin via Bristol yesterday morning.
Last night's snow is expected to be the last major fall, with just minor showers expected over the coming week. Met Eireann has removed its severe weather warning for today, as snow is only expected on higher ground.
Mr Dempsey denied reports that Taoiseach Brian Cowen had asked him to cut his week-long holiday three days short. He said Mr Cowen had just contacted him last Wednesday to inform him of the outcome of the first ERCC meeting.
"I booked the holiday myself and I changed my arrangements myself. No request from anybody," he said.
Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny yesterday criticised the Government's response to the weather crisis, saying that leadership had been sadly lacking.
Sean Hogan, the chair of the ERCC, is due to be questioned tomorrow about the state's response to the worst weather in 40 years.