Varadkar defends Coveney’s call to pilot over cancelled flight

Taoiseach says Minister’s behaviour during fog forecast dispute was ‘not intimidatory’


Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has defended Simon Coveney after it emerged that the Minister for Foreign Affairs questioned the judgment of an Air Corps helicopter pilot in June 2015 when the pilot refused to fly the then minister for defence to Cork because fog was forecast.

The Air Corps was said to be “very unhappy” over the incident, in which Mr Coveney telephoned the pilot directly, and over a subsequent telephone call to the pilot by Mr Coveney’s private secretary, Vincent Lowe.

Such a thing had not happened in 25 years, an Air Corps officer told the Department of Defence, according to a memo between two department officials that was obtained by The Irish Times under the Freedom of Information Act.

Mr Varadkar said on Wednesday in the Dáil that Mr Coveney’s telephone call to the pilot was not intimidatory, as had been suggested by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin.

“I certainly don’t think that was Mr Coveney’s intention,” said Mr Varadkar. “It was rather just to ask a question or to offer a query.”

Mr Coveney, who did not provide comment prior to the publication of the memo, said on Wednesday that he had the “utmost respect for all military personnel”.

In the Dáil, the Taoiseach Safety was paramount, he added.

It was confirmed on Wednesday that Mr Coveney had followed government convention in requesting the Air Corps transport to Cork, obtaining permission from the then taoiseach, Enda Kenny.

Ministerial diary

Mr Coveney’s ministerial diary for the date in question, June 17th, 2015, shows that between 7am and 8am he was travelling to Newbridge in Co Kildare for a meeting with a delegation from Iran that included the speaker of the Iranian parliament.

During that journey, at 7.05am, Mr Lowe was informed that Mr Coveney’s Air Corps helicopter lift to Cork had been cancelled as fog was forecast, prompting the minister’s call to the pilot, during which he questioned his judgment.

The diary shows that, between 8.30am and 9.30am, Mr Coveney was due to meet the Iranian delegation.

After that meeting, Mr Coveney was supposed to be in Ringaskiddy to open – which he did – a €53.2 million, 30,000sq m expansion at the premises of the DePuy Synthes medical devices company.

This event was said to be the reason for his request for Air Corps transport to Cork.

It was when the minister was in Cork that Mr Lowe, “presumably at the direction of the minister”, according to the memo, telephoned the pilot to tell him “there was in fact no fog in Cork”.

This was seen by the pilot, a commandant with 20 years’ flying experience and who was “well able to hold his ground in a discussion with a minister”, as “rubbing it in”, according to the memo.

Mr Lowe’s call also apparently compounded annoyance in the Air Corps at the incident.

Speaking on his way into a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday morning, Mr Coveney told reporters: “I have the utmost respect for all military personnel and I think that my time in the Department of Defence would show that.

“So I don’t want to add to that story any further, apart from to say that I have total respect for the judgment of military personnel, whether they’re in the Naval Service, the Air Corps or in the Army.”

Last night, a spokeswoman said Mr Coveney’s call to the pilot was “purely to gain a first hand understanding as to the concern around flying and was not an attempt to influence the pilot’s decision”.