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Cowen defiant as Harney shuns calls to face crisis

THERE was never a possibility of Mary Harney cutting her 15-day New Zealand junket short, the Taoiseach has admitted.

Brian Cowen -- who arrived in Washington today -- confirmed that he had been in direct contact with Ms Harney but denied that there was ever a possibility of her returning to Ireland to be the face of the Tallaght hospital crisis.

The Taoiseach said that they discussed how the backlog of X-rays would be cleared and what action would be appropriate next.

Asked about whether the Minister ever offered to leave her St Patrick's Day junket, Mr Cowen said: "I mean, there is nothing being done at the moment that wouldn't be done.

"Everything that can be done is being done in relation to this particular issue."

Jet-setting Ms Harney was on the move again this evening, flying from Wellington back to Auckland for yet another lavish reception.

The embattled Minister for Health is now 10 days into her five-star trip just as the main event arrives.

She will spend St Patrick's Day attending a Mass with the Auckland Irish Society before being guest of honour at a consular reception for 200 guests.

Strangely, St Patrick's Day is actually one of the quietest days on Ms Harney's itinerary.

After 11am Mass, she is scheduled to spend the afternoon relaxing in her hotel before attending a reception where guests will include a representative of the New Zealand Prime Minister and representatives of the four regions of Auckland.

At the same time, officials in Tallaght Hospital will continue to deal with the fallout of the X-ray scandal.

The 22-person board began the process of examining its response to revelations that 58,000 X-rays had not been reviewed by consultant radiologists.

There were calls for board chairman Lyndon MacCann to consider his position in light of the disclosures, including the fact that thousands of GP letters were unopened at the hospital.

However, the Herald understands that Mr MacCann expressed a strong wish to remain in his position.

To date, 1,414 people have called the special helpline set-up to offer assistance to worried patients. Some 1,240 callers have received a reply, while another 137 are waiting to be contacted with their results.

Meanwhile, a man who acted as Ms Harney's chauffeur during the Auckland parade has described her mood as "quiet".

Dennis Lowe told reporters that Ms Harney said she was tired.

"She said she'd visited before, and that the Irish Government only allowed one free trip a year, so this was special."