Will the last minister out turn off the lights?

AUSTRALIA, Argentina and Malaysia — just some of the exotic destinations to which government ministers will travel this year to represent Ireland on St Patrick’s Day.

Every March, a phalanx of senior and junior ministers travel to far-flung locations at a cost of hundreds of thousands of euro to the taxpayer.

But the Government insists St Patrick’s Day is a rare opportunity to market Ireland abroad and says the benefits of such trips far outweigh the costs.

In keeping with tradition, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern will travel to Washington this weekend to present US President George W Bush with the customary bowl of Irish shamrock at the White House on Monday.

Tánaiste and Finance Minister Brian Cowen is scheduled to travel to Malaysia, a government spokesman confirmed.

Foreign Affairs Minister Dermot Ahern will travel to Argentina and Transport Minister Noel Dempsey will be in Australia.

Health Minister Mary Harney will be in Prague in the Czech Republic, while Enterprise Minister Micheál Martin will be in Italy for events in Rome and the Vatican.

Education Minister Mary Hanafin will be in New York, while the junior minister with responsibility for foreign affairs Dick Roche will travel to China.

Environment Minister and Green Party leader John Gormley will be in London.

While in opposition, the Greens were vocal critics of the practice of shutting the Dáil for lengthy spells around St Patrick’s Day to facilitate such trips.

This year, the Dáil will close for two weeks because of the proximity of St Patrick’s Day to Easter.

Some departments refused to confirm last night the destinations to which their ministers would be travelling. This is because the Government prefers to release all the information together in a lengthy memo defending the trips, and the departments did not wish to pre-empt this.

Last year, the memo stretched to nine pages, and stated: “Every year on March 17, the world’s attention turns to Ireland and all things Irish. This goodwill offers an unrivalled opportunity to promote modern Ireland overseas and to engage directly on a variety of issues with global leaders.”

The Government is expected to issue this year’s memo later today or tomorrow, the last day of Dáil business before the two-week break commences.

Among the other countries to which ministers are expected to travel are Canada, France, India, Japan, Russia and South Africa.

Cities such as Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh are also expected to be on the list.

But while numerous ministers will be packing their bags, some are staying at home.

Defence Minister Willie O’Dea will be in Limerick, where he spends every St Patrick’s Day.

And Tourism Minister Séamus Brennan will be in Dublin to review the country’s showpiece St Patrick’s Day festival.

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