THE Government has refused to abandon plans to send several government ministers to far-flung destinations on St Patrick's Day.
Despite controversy over the cost of the so-called junkets -- and the likelihood this year's trips will close to a General Election -- Tourism Minister Mary Hanafin has confirmed that preparations are proceeding for this year's raft of trips
Speaking to the Irish Independent in New York last night, the minister accused Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny of being "far too cynical about the importance of St Patrick's Day".
Mr Kenny had argued that trips by ministers would be viewed as a "cynical swansong" by the public, and claimed some foreign leaders might not wish to meet lame-duck ministers.
"We should be all out there taking this opportunity to promote Ireland," Ms Hanafin said. "St Patrick's Day is our opportunity -- any other country in the world would kill for it.
"If the leader of the opposition wants to go as well, I don't see any difficulty," she added.
Asked if it would not be better to hold the election before St Patrick's Day, and allow the foreign trips to be the first big event for a new administration, she said "the message is the same".
"The message is about Ireland. The message is not about Mary Hanafin. It's not about Brian Cowen. It's about Ireland as a place to invest. It's about Ireland as a place to visit.
"It doesn't matter really who the messenger is, it's the message that is important for St Patrick's Day."
She said planning was already under way for the visits, because regardless of who goes, the programmes in the host cities are pretty much set.
She said London was particularly important this year from the point of tourism and she hoped as tourism minister to promote Ireland in the market there.
"The planning goes ahead, the programming goes ahead," she said, "The only thing that has to be slotted in is the individual."
She said the election date was a matter for the Taoiseach to decide. "But the one thing that should not happen, it should not be on St Patrick's weekend," she said. "Because we don't want it to interfere with that."