They're always telling us what a truly unique event St Patrick's Day is, but how unique is the spectacle of 28 government ministers all leaving the country at the same time? The only comparison one can think of is that of a 'fall of Saigon' situation, with a hapless government fleeing its besieged country and bailing out to the four corners.
But in that case, the fleeing politicians are leaving forever, whereas in this case, our ministers – destined for a bit of a partying on our behalf – will be back within days. That's the situation now, in these cautious, accountable times. In 2010, however, the then Tanaiste Mary Harney went to New Zealand for St Patrick's Day and stayed for over two weeks. She was there for a week beforehand, and stayed on well after the green bunting had been taken down. The extended stay caused great anger back in Ireland and was probably the culmination of the public exasperation with the sight of ministers, blithely enjoying the love of the Irish overseas while people were suffering back home.
Worse still, during Harney's absence, the infamous scandal over lost X-rays arose at Tallaght hospital, leading to calls for her to return immediately. But to no avail. Even the 'New Zealand Herald' expressed its amazement. "It's a brave politician who traipses halfway round the world while her political opponents are calling for her head and her job could be up for grabs in an upcoming Cabinet reshuffle. But Irish minister Mary Harney is no stranger to controversy."
Controversy always ensues whenever the schedule for the great St Patrick's exodus is announced, usually stirred up by an opportunistic opposition who would be doing the same if they were in power – or by commentators aghast that some politicians might actually be abroad enjoying themselves, God forbid. And I must say it was a begrudgery that I found wearisome, especially having worked in the foreign service and seen the hard work ministers have to put in, going to functions, meetings and parades.
Even during the excessive years – and there was undoubtedly a lot of useless junketeering by ministers on these jaunts (and even more so by TDs and councillors) – it was still value for money in terms of profile for Ireland, and the cultivation of goodwill, cultural opportunities and, yes, trade and inward investment.
Let's face it, in these times of economic recovery, such foreign goodwill has never been more important. We are not going to recover on the growth of our small- to medium-seized industry, not with the way we cripple them with rates and taxes, so we might as well keep banging the foreign direct investment drum.
Hence, the endless trips by senior ministers to emerging markets and the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries.
The only debate now is about the destinations and whether the right ministers are being allocated. And probably the balance has been got right, between responsibilities on trade, political partnerships, the Irish diaspora and overseas aid. Hence, while the big showy gigs include the Taoiseach in Washington and the Tanaiste in France we also have the Minister of State Kathleen Lynch visiting Vietnam – where Ireland has an aid programme – and another junior minister Jan O'Sullivan going to Scotland, a county with which we have strong historic links.
But one wonders if an economically powerful, if politically unpleasant, country like Russia should not have got a full cabinet minister for its celebrations rather than a junior, albeit a very capable one in Alex White?
Sending Brendan Howlin to China and Michael Noonan to Canada strikes the right note.
BUT, of course, the US is the crucial territory. US companies have huge links to Ireland, which are set to grow, and the ethnic links with Ireland are deep and genuinely felt across the US. Those who feel aggrieved at ministers jetting off to work the foreign circuit should ask themselves would they really prefer that they stayed in Dublin, Ballinasloe or Donegal?
Imagine if our politicians didn't jet off to milk the goodwill.
They should remember poor Dick Spring, a tremendously hard working Foreign Minister but one who got an awful fright in 1987 when he held his Kerry seat by only four votes. He used to get invites to attend St Patrick's Day events all over the world but thereafter the line from Spring's office was always that the Tanaiste "will be attending the parade in Tralee this year – and every other year". No two weeks in New Zealand for him.