Health Minister on 15-day trip as controversy hits
HEALTH Minister Mary Harney is on a 15-day trip to the other side of the world at taxpayers' expense while controversy rages at home over thousands of unchecked X-rays.
She is in New Zealand for St Patrick's Day festivities and business meetings with her husband Brian Geoghegan, the former chairman of FAS, and three advisers. Mr Geoghegan is travelling in an official capacity as "Ms Harney's spouse" and not in any private capacity.
His flights and accommodation will therefore be met by the Department of Health and ultimately the taxpayer.
The minister left for the action-packed trip Down Under last Saturday and will not return until Sunday March 21. This is despite the growing controversy at home and growing opposition calls for her resignation.
The Department of Health last night insisted the minister was dealing with the misdiagnosis crisis remotely from New Zealand.
But her absence in the Dail drew sharp criticisms from opposition parties who claimed she had "ignored" the problem of unchecked X-rays when it was first raised in December.
Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny queried why Ms Harney had to travel to New Zealand 10 days before St Patrick's Day on March 17.
But Taoiseach Brian Cowen said her list of business engagements and meetings kicked in early and she had a full schedule for the 15 days abroad.
In the past, Ms Harney has attracted criticism for her overseas travel, which included visits to the FAS Science Challenge Project in Florida and a US health tour, which included a visit to the Superbowl.
The Department of Health last night confirmed Ms Harney and her delegation travelled premium-economy class rather than first class.
The premium-economy seats -- compared to standard economy or first class -- would have cost around €8,000 for all five members of the delegation.
Officials provided Ms Harney's full 15-day itinerary to the Irish Independent last night.
It details meetings with members of the Irish community and health experts, visits to hospitals, attendance at the Auckland parade and a series of media interviews.
Her trip includes meetings with ministers and officials and hospital consultants. But the department refused to detail the hotels in which Ms Harney is staying. The department also declined to outline the potential cost of the trip, saying it would only be determined when invoices were submitted.