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Harney's in wrong, but the buck stops with you, Brian

Here we go again. A senior Cabinet minister is abroad when all hell is breaking loose in his or her department.

What bad luck for Health Minister Mary Harney that the X-ray scandal erupted just as she was settling into a 15-day trip to sunny New Zealand to mark St Patrick's Day.

She is not the first to be caught out. Less than three months ago, Transport Minister Noel Dempsey, was on a sun break with his wife when Ireland ground to a halt due to heavy snowfall.

Mr Dempsey fled the freezing weather when most workers (at least those lucky enough to have a job) returned to their duties after the Christmas and New Year break.

Why the minister couldn't have taken his holiday during the break like everyone else beats me. He was unapologetic on his return.

Mary Harney's trip to New Zealand (accompanied by her husband) may officially be a working one -- but in the current climate, a two-week break Down Under is hard to defend.

We can spend all the time we like criticising the travel plans of absentee ministers, but there should be as much focus on the leadership skills of their boss, Brian Cowen.

A good chief executive takes ultimate responsibility for the actions of his senior management. He or she instils discipline in the team.

One presumes the Taoiseach knew Mr Dempsey was taking a trip to the sun in the week when the country was going back to work and that Mary Harney's trip was going stretch to a full two weeks. If he didn't know, he should have. And he should have said 'NO'.

In the past month, two ministers resigned. With Willie O Dea, it was pressure from the Greens that resulted in him resigning. That initiative should have come from Brian Cowen, not John Gormley.

Brian Cowen should have full authority over his ministers. He should be setting down rules.

He should be impressing on them that every cent of taxpayers' money must be justified.

Lack of discipline in the Government ranks caused it serious embarrassment twice in the past few weeks. An amendment to the Finance Bill was carried only with the vote of the Ceann Comhairle because deputies were missing from the Dail.

On Tuesday, the Government was caught again when a Labour party amendment to the Finance Bill was passed when it was inadvertently agreed to by the Finance Minister.

As he puts the finishing touches to his Cabinet reshuffle, the Taoiseach could take some leadership tips from Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates.

Gates wrote a few years ago about the qualities needed to make a good boss.

He said: "A good manager should hire carefully and be willing to fire. You need a strong team, because a mediocre team gives mediocre results, no matter how well managed it is."

He added: "A good manager should also like people and be good at communicating. This is hard to fake. If you don't enjoy interacting with people, it'll be hard to manage them well."

Gates said a good manager should also develop the people to do their jobs better than the manager can. Transfer your skills to them. And build morale.

It's over to you, Brian