Mary Harney

TAOISEACH Brian Cowen wants health minister Mary Harney to join Fianna Fáil, once the PDs are formally wound up.

Although Harney has publicly signalled that she will remain as an independent TD after the PDs finish, it is understood the Taoiseach is keen for her to rejoin the party she left more than 20 years ago.

It had been widely believed that, with the PDs ceasing to exist, Harney's 12-year tenure in cabinet was drawing to an end and that she would step down as health minister at a time of her choosing, clearing the way for a possible cabinet reshuffle.

However, Cowen is a big admirer of Harney and wants her to join Fianna Fáil and stay on in health. It is understood Cowen's argument is that these are extraordinary times and that the government needs to keep its best people and show a united front and that, by rejoining Fianna Fáil, it would be a serious signal of intent from Harney.

It is not known if the health minister is persuaded by the argument, particularly given her earlier insistence that she would not join any other political party.

However, rejoining Fianna Fáil would certainly ensure she stays on in the cabinet as health minister. Despite the huge challenges that exist in that job, Harney has made little secret that she still enjoys front line politics. During a recent stormy period for the government, she is known to have sent a text message to John Gormley to the effect that the worst day in government was still better than the best day in opposition.

There had been speculation that Harney might be in line for the lucrative EU Commissioner position. However, the government's relatively narrow majority in the Dáil – which has shrunk in recent months – means that the Taoiseach can ill-afford to lose any further government TDs, particularly as the opposition would be certain to win any by-election in Dublin Mid-West.