EU Commission queries ministerial use of fishery aircraft

 

The European Commission has made formal contact with the Government over the use of the Casa fisheries surveillance aircraft for which Brussels provides funding.

A letter from the Commission querying the circumstances under which the aircraft can be used was received by the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources this week. The inquiry came three weeks after the political controversy erupted over the use of the aircraft by the Tánaiste, Ms Harney, to travel to Co Leitrim for the opening of a friend's off-licence. Ms Harney subsequently admitted that her flight on an Air Corps aircraft for this function was a mistake.

The letter from the Commission was received by the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources on Thursday, just 24 hours after the Minister for the Marine, Mr Fahey, told the Dáil that the Commission accepted the use of the aircraft for "other activities from time to time".

During marine questions in the Dáil on Wednesday, Mr Fahey told the Labour marine spokesman, Mr Michael Bell, that it had been "regularly confirmed" with the Commission that the vast proportion of Casa time was "demonstrably spent" on fisheries protection. "The fact that the aircraft are primarily tasked with fisheries protection has not precluded their deployment from time to time on search and rescue, air ambulance, security and transport duties."

A spokeswoman for the Commissioner for Agriculture and Fisheries, Mr Franz Fischler, told The Irish Times that the letter did not constitute a formal investigation into the matter, but it was seeking a reply. Last month, the Commission confirmed it was checking its records in relation to EU funding for the surveillance aircraft and their usage terms.

The Commission said then it had been informed by the Government that the aircraft were to be used for fishery protection for "90 per cent" of flying time, while other duties could be carried out for up to "10 per cent" of flying time. However, the Department of the Marine maintains that no such "90 per cent/10 per cent" agreement exists in writing, and that the EU funding of 50 per cent of the aircraft cost was on the basis that the planes should be used "primarily" for fisheries protection.

Figures produced by the Department of Defence showed that the two aircraft had met a 90 per cent target for fisheries protection last year and only 2 per cent of flying time was on ministerial transport.

The figures also showed that the Tánaiste was the most frequent user of Air Corps helicopter transport of the Cabinet, with 16 trips recorded in Dauphin and Alouette helicopters, compared to two flights by the Taoiseach and three by the Minister for Agriculture.