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Ministers not taxed by double-jobbing

OFFICIALLY, they're still supposed to be running the country. A request by the Sunday Independent, however, for the official diaries of the seven remaining members of the Cabinet for the last week, shows how the majority of our senior ministers have abandoned the ship of state in its hour of greatest need in a desperate bid to save their own political skins.

According to the information obtained from the various ministers' departments and Fianna Fail headquarters, Finance Minister Brian Lenihan, and to a lesser extent ministers Mary Hanafin and Pat Carey, would appear to be the only members of the Cabinet still actively engaged in public duties relating to their departments.

In stark contrast to the continuing diligence still being exhibited by his Minister for Finance, Taoiseach Brian Cowen seems to have absolved himself of any involvement in government business over the last week.

If any evidence was needed to back up that assertion, one only has to take the confirmation by a Government spokeswoman that the Cabinet did not meet on a single occasion last week.

To put that in perspective, consider the fact that Finance Minister Brian Lenihan spent last Monday and Tuesday in Brussels, attending meetings of the Eurogroup, the Eurogroup plus 10, and, most crucially, the Ecofin meeting of European finance ministers.

Ironically, even as Mr Lenihan was locked down in tense talks with our European partners, trying to downplay the 'loose talk' of certain politicians here at home in relation to Ireland's future intentions on the €85bn EU/IMF bailout, our Taoiseach was getting ready for his one public engagement of the week -- the launch of the Tayto Topaz Comortas Peile Paidi O Se at Dublin's Burlington Hotel.

Asked for details of Mr Cowen's diary for the four other days he was supposed to be running the country, a government spokesman said simply that the Taoiseach "would have had a number of private meetings at his department and elsewhere".

Asked how many of these private meetings had taken place and on what days, the spokesman refused as a matter of official policy to provide any information.

While few will have been surprised at Mr Cowen's near invisibility since his resignation as leader of Fianna Fail and subsequent decision not to contest the election, eyebrows will be raised at the low profile being kept by his closest lieutenant, Tanaiste Mary Coughlan.

An examination of Ms Coughlan's diary for her two departments -- Education and Health -- for the past week, throws up just two public engagements that could be associated with her role as minister.

Last Monday, as Health Minister, Ms Coughlan announced the Government's approval for an extension at Sligo General Hospital. Two days later, Ms Coughlan in her capacity as Education Minister travelled to Killybegs (in her own constituency) to launch a web access project at the town's tourism college.

Outside of these functions, the Tanaiste was present in Dublin last Thursday for the launch of Fianna Fail's education policy, where she faced accusations from the media that she was being kept hidden away from voters to boost her party's electoral chances. Ms Coughlan strongly denied that this was the case.

Mary Hanafin, for her part, appears to have made herself available at every opportunity afforded to her as both Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation Minister.

This despite the fact that she is facing the fight of her political life to hold on to her seat in the Dun Laoghaire Rathdown constituency, which has seen its Dail representation drop from five to four seats in this election.

Last Wednesday, Ms Hanafin attended the Health & Safety Expo at the National Convention Centre in Dublin's Spencer Dock in her capacity as Enterprise Minister.

And on Thursday, she attended a business breakfast hosted by employers' group Ibec in the morning, before visiting the Tutankhamun exhibition at the RDS in her role as Minister for Tourism, Minister that afternoon.

Unlike Ms Hanafin, our Minister for Agriculture and Minister for Justice Brendan Smith limited his official ministerial engagements strictly to within the confines of his Cavan constituency.

Last Monday, Mr Smith met with the IFA (Irish Farmers' Association) in Cavan as Agriculture Minister. With his official diary free up until an 'informal meeting' as Minister for Justice with the Governor of Loughan House last Friday, Mr Smith was out every other day on the campaign trail fighting for his political future.

With three departments under his direct control since the implosion of the Fianna Fail-Green coalition, one would think that Eamon O Cuiv's ministerial diary would be overflowing with official commitments.

Whether it is or it isn't, Mr O Cuiv refuses to tell anyone.

Contacted directly, Mr O'Cuiv -- who is currently the Minister for Social Protection, Minister for Defence and Minister for the Environment -- questioned the relevance of our inquiry.

"I don't see the relevance. If you're worried if I'm looking after my departments, I can tell you I'm spending a considerable amount of my time each day dealing with them," Mr O Cuiv responded frostily.

Sunday Independent