O’Keeffe criticises government handling of crisis

FRESH cracks appeared in government ranks over the medical cards crisis last night as Education Minister Batt O’Keeffe criticised the government’s handling of the controversy.

The minister waded into the political minefield as he took control of one of Ireland’s biggest trade delegations as Taoiseach Brian Cowen delayed his visit to China in order to quell a rebellion at home.

Mr O’Keeffe admitted the cabinet had failed to explain its objectives to voters, though he refused to concede the policy was wrong.

“We’ve all been subjected to the backlash. Sometimes in politics we don’t sell our message well and on those occasions you have to put your hands up,” Mr O’Keeffe said in Shanghai.

The minister expressed concern about the “unnecessary worry” that had been caused to elderly people because of the way the policy had been explained.

“There was confusion all round and I suppose we have to take a responsibility in not communicating our message properly,” he said.

The minister expressed his views as Ireland faced international embarrassment as the country’s second biggest trade delegations was being led by the Education Minister, while the embattled Mr Cowen delayed travelling to China to deal with the medical card crisis.

Mr O’Keeffe landed in Shanghai to head the 180 strong official party of Government officials and business leaders representing some 90 Irish companies.

Mr Cowen’s failure to carry out the high-profile visit in full underlines the importance being given to the medical card revolt, which followed the ending of the automatic right to health assistance for the over 70s announced in last week’s emergency budget — and the failure of the Government to anticipate the backlash against the measure from within its own ranks.

Mr Cowen has made it clear he intends to continue with as much of the remaining five-day programme as possible, which sees him scheduled to meet Chinese premier Wen Jiabao in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on Thursday ahead of the summit of EU and east Asian nations.

The trade mission had taken lengthy planning, and Mr Cowen’s partial withdrawal from it was being played down by Irish officials, despite the obvious embarrassment his absence has caused.

Mr Cowen was under pressure to abandon the trip and send Tánaiste and Enterprise and Employment Minister Mary Coughlan instead by those who wanted him to remain in Dublin and deal with the medical card rebellion in the Government personally ahead of tomorrow’s crunch Dáil showdown.

Junior trade minister John McGuinness is also part of the delegation intended to spur business deals with a Chinese economy still roaring ahead despite the world financial crisis.

Some experts rank China as having overtaken Japan to become the second biggest economy in the world, behind the US.

The trip is heavily focused towards education and Mr O’Keeffe will sign a number of protocols while in China strengthening the close educational links between the twin cities of Cork and Shanghai before the delegations returns on Sunday.


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