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Make the most of the trip Mary, it's going to be your last at our expense

Mary Harney has chosen the wrong time to go Down Under. As the fur continues to fly over the Tallaght X-rays scandal, the discovery that the Minister for Health has disappeared to New Zealand for a full fortnight has made a bad political situation look even worse.

She should enjoy it while it lasts -- because unless Brian Cowen is even more out of touch than we realised, this will be the last foreign trip she ever takes at the taxpayers' expense.

There's a long way to go before we know for sure exactly how 58,000 vital scans went unchecked by consultant radiologists in what is supposed to be one of the country's leading hospitals.

Amid all the arguments over systems failure, communications breakdown and unopened letters, however, one damning fact stands out.

Mary Harney was clearly informed by Professor Kevin Conlon last December 15 that something was very badly wrong in Tallaght. And by her own admission, she did nothing either to find out the full scale of the crisis or to do anything meaningful about it.

After all the human misery that's been caused by the HSE's various diagnosis failures in recent years, that just isn't good enough.

The minister may not be personally responsible for every mistake made by doctors and nurses, but she must at least be politically accountable when the public are clearly owed a proper explanation.

She may consider herself a bit unlucky that the media have broken this story just as she's left the country.

But since she apparently washed her hands of it three months ago, she really only has herself to blame.

The wisdom of sending a government minister on such a long trip is a legitimate issue in itself, particularly since Harney herself has form in this area.

She has often been accused of enjoying herself just a little too much on these excursions, from the infamous FAS trip to Florida, where she got a $400 hairdo, to the fact-finding mission in Arizona two years ago that coincided with her attendance at the Super Bowl.


With the Government already desperate to avoid accusations of any unnecessary waste, it's hard to believe that a shorter and more economical journey could not have been arranged.

When she finally gets back from what must be the longest St Patrick's festivities on the planet, Harney's first act should be the drafting of her resignation statement.

In a way it's amazing that she has lasted this long, since she no longer has a political party to prop her up and the failure of her reform package has been obvious for years. The forthcoming Cabinet reshuffle gives her a perfect opportunity to quit with a minimum of embarrassment, as long as she doesn't mind claiming with a straight face that she intended to leave all along.

Of course, Harney cannot take all the blame.

The lack of urgency from her colleagues in the Dail was truly depressing, with the Taoiseach appearing to believe that a cancer victim getting the all-clear was no big deal and Barry Andrews unable to answer even the most basic questions.

Over the last couple of weeks we've seen two ministers resign because they were caught misbehaving, but the notion of anyone falling on their sword over a massive policy failure seems to be as alien to the Irish political system as ever.

In many ways it's sad that Harney's career is ending like this.

She's an honourable politician and a tough fighter, but her political condition is now terminal.