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Harney back in the firing line

MARY Harney refused to speculate on her position in the Cabinet as she arrived back from her 15-day junket in New Zealand today.

The embattled Health minister looked relaxed and smiling as she came through Dublin Airport shortly after 7.30 this morning.

Wearing a loose summer jacket and slacks, Ms Harney defended her extended St Patrick's Day trip.

When asked by the Herald if she was worried about tomorrow's Cabinet reshuffle, she said: "I'm not going to speculate on the state of mind I'm in, I know the headlines you lot will make out of it.

"That's a matter for the Taoiseach. I'm not going to speculate on the reshuffle.

"I look forward to getting back to work in the next hour in my office," she added.

Ms Harney said she had been in daily contact with her officials in Dublin since the controversy broke about how 57,921 X-rays were not reviewed at Tallaght Hospital.

She said: "Of course there shouldn't have been 57,000 X-rays that weren't reviewed by radiologists, but that is a matter for the hospital after Maurice Hayes' report.

"I'm satisfied that everything that can be done is being done."

Minister Harney came through the main arrivals hall of Dublin Airport as Taoiseach Brian Cowen put a ban on the use of VIP facilities for St Patrick's Day trips.

She was accompanied by her husband Brian Geoghegan and two aides.

Brian Geoghegan was wearing a salmon pink shirt and beige slacks.

However, Harney experienced a taste of the public fury caused by her two-week trip during the health crisis when she was heckled by a small number of young people at the airport. The minister was then quickly whisked away in her State car.

Minister Harney described her time in New Zealand as "very productive".

"I was on an official trip obviously, a very important trip, and I think you'll find the companies involved sounded very productive," she said.

The itinerary for the minister included a lavish St Patrick's Day festival banquet at the five-star Langham Hotel in Auckland, a parade through the city and meetings with various government ministers and members of the Irish community.

She said that she was "very keen" to build links with New Zealand, this is despite the fact that none of the 2,876 Irish jobs last year were created by New Zealand companies.

The trip is the longest by any of the 23 ministers travelling abroad for St Patrick's Day.

However, she added: "I was there, as you know, when the controversy around Tallaght arose. I was in touch with it every day."

She also defended the actions of Professor Kevin Conlon since he became CEO of Tallaght Hospital in December.

She said: "I have been in touch with them all in Tallaght and indeed Brendan Drumm and the head of my Department.

"I can tell you that not withstanding the fact that it was so far away I wasn't very far from a phonecall. Virtually every day there was communication."

A fresh looking Ms Harney said that she was going straight to her office at the Department of Health.

The group flew from New Zealand to Sydney on to Abu Dhabi and into Dublin.