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Confusion reigns over St Patrick's Day exodus

THE annual St Patrick's Day exodus of government ministers -- including the Taoiseach's trip to the White House -- was in doubt last night after Brian Cowen announced that the General Election will take place just six days beforehand.

Ministers usually travel around the world during St Patrick's week promoting Ireland as a tourist destination and place to do business.

But with the election date set for March 11, the likelihood of a new government being in place before the St Patrick's Day celebrations seems slim.

Mr Cowen's announcement of the election date has caused confusion, with nobody in government clear how to organise the traditional trips abroad.

If a Labour-Fine Gael coalition were to win the election, they would have to hammer out a programme for government before nominating a Taoiseach in the Dail. Those negotiations could take several days and run past St Patrick's Day.

A government spokesman said the issue would be a matter for the next government, while the Department of Foreign Affairs, which organises the trips, is not sure what to do.

A spokesman said it was up to the government of the day and that "it wouldn't be appropriate for the department to comment at this stage".

"That's basically a nice way of saying they haven't a clue," a coalition source told the Irish Independent last night.

Communications Minister Eamon Ryan yesterday said that opposition leaders and President Mary McAleese could represent Ireland abroad -- with Mrs McAleese meeting her US counterpart, Barack Obama, in the White House on March 17.

The St Patrick's Day efforts are seen as an invaluable way of pressing Irish interests abroad.

It is feared the Taoiseach's cherished events in Washington would be difficult to get back if cancelled even once.

Irish Independent