Harney makes light of crisis as she enjoys lavish banquet
THERE was no sign of Bilbo Baggins but a plethora of distinguished guests turned out to dine with the embattled Health Minister Mary Harney at a lavish St Patrick's Day Gala ball held in Auckland last night.
Ms Harney pressed ahead with official engagements this week despite calls from opposition parties for her to return to Ireland to deal with the snowballing scandal at Tallaght hospital.
She is due to stay in New Zealand for another eight days with a host of events lined up, including media interviews, hospital visits and political meetings.
However, the St Patrick's Banquet, which was held in the opulent five-star Langham Hotel and was attended by over 400 guests, is thought to be the highlight of the trip.
New Zealand's Prime Minister, the Honourable Jon Key, attended with his wife Bronagh, as well as a host of ex pats, local business people and social climbers.
Guests, who paid $180 for the sought-after Green Tie tickets, were treated to a delicious meal that included oysters and fillet steak, as well as the best of New Zealand wines. On arrival, attendees could choose between champagne and Guinness as well as Bushmills, Baileys and Kilkenny beer, which flowed all evening. Ms Harney had spent the early afternoon attending the St Patrick's Day parade before returning to the hotel, with nothing scheduled on her itinerary until the banquet that evening.
An Irish businesswoman, who was in attendance at the ball, said it was a fabulous night with Ms Harney looking "elegant in beige". The minister did, however, wear a cast on her left arm for an injury that occurred before she left Ireland, she told guests.
An attempt by a New Zealand reporter to confront Ms Harney at the start of the evening was swiftly dealt with by security and the melee didn't manage to take the fizz out of a decadent evening.
"There was a fracas outside the front of the hotel as Minister Harney arrived. A woman broke through the ranks to hassle her as she was coming through the foyer but her security guy got very annoyed. She was a New Zealand journalist from one of the papers. She wanted to ask Minister Harney questions but her handler didn't like it and a fracas ensued. The journalist said 'so much for freedom of the press, what is wrong with you Irish'. Loads of the press were allowed in but she was pushy and bolshie and wasn't on the official list," an eye-witness said.
Despite this earlier incident, the evening went ahead without a further glitch. "It was a fantastic night. The minister gave a fabulous speech and spoke with great clarity."
A guest revealed that Ms Harney alluded to her difficulties at home. "She said something like 'they are mad to get me home but they may not want me home. I might have to stay here if it is OK' and made a joke of it. Not everyone knew the situation that was going on back at home but some people knew and laughed when she said she might have to stay here.
"She talked about the diaspora and the quality of people who leave Ireland and come to New Zealand and the reciprocal relationship between Ireland and New Zealand and how it is very important," the guest said.
Other guests at the event included former IFA president Tom Clinton as well as representatives from the Chinese and US embassies.