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Revealed: How Michael D Higgins and Mary McAleese used government jet service hundreds of times

Information about the presidents’ use of the service can be revealed for the first time following a landmark ruling this year.

President Mary McAleese and president-elect Michael D Higgins in 2011
President Mary McAleese and president-elect Michael D Higgins in 2011
Image: PA Archive/PA Images

FORMER PRESIDENT MARY McAleese used the Government’s jet service more than twice as often per term as current president Michael D Higgins, according to new figures.

TheJournal.ie can for the first time reveal how each president traveled in an official capacity by air, following a landmark Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) request by transparency group Right to Know.

The group asked the Department of Defence for details of the presidents’ use of the Ministerial Air Transport Service (MATS), which provides government officials and the President with an air transport service for official engagements at home and abroad.

Details about the use of MATS, including departure and arrival dates, routes, flying time, the names of those who use it and the number of passengers on board when it is used, are regularly published on the Department’s website.

However, information about the President’s use of the service is not published online, and has not previously been made available under FOI laws or AIE regulations due to exemptions on the release of records relating to the Office of the President.

Now, TheJournal.ie can reveal exactly how Mary McAleese and Michael D Higgins availed of  the Government’s jet service over a 21-year period.

Mary McAleese

Figures released by the Department of Defence show that Mary McAleese used MATS 322 times during her fourteen years as President – an average of 23 times per year.

They included:

  • 129 trips by helicopter
  • 89 trips on the Government’s former Gulfstream IV jet
  • 62 trips on the Government’s Learjet
  • 32 trips on the Government’s former Beechcraft Super King plane
  • 10 trips on the Air Corps’ CASA CN-235 plane

More than 80% of McAleese’s trips were domestic in nature: she took 269 journeys using the service between 1997 and 2011, including 96 journeys to her native Belfast.

She also took 53 international journeys, taking in trips to the UK, the US, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Finland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Estonia, Russia, Mexico, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.

Her busiest year was in 2002, when she took 31 trips, followed by 2008 (30 trips) and 1998 (29 trips), with 1997 (1 trip), 2003 (15 trips) and 2007 (16 trips) her least busiest years.

McAleese’s longest journey took place in 1999, when she used the Gulfstream IV for a round trip from Dublin to Miami via Mexico from 30 March to 8 April.

Michael D Higgins

Mary McAleese’s use of MATS per term was more than double that compared to Michael D Higgins during his first term, when he used the service just 71 times – an average of just over 10 trips per year.

They included:

  • 18 trips by helicopter
  • 8 trips on the Government’s former Gulfstream IV jet
  • 44 trips on the Government’s Learjet
  • 1 trip on the Air Corps’ CASA CN-235 plane

Unlike his predecessor, Higgins’ use of the government jet service was split more evenly between engagements at home and abroad.

He used MATS 38 times for domestic trips and 33 times for international journeys between 2011 and 2018, although it wasn’t until 2013 that he used the service outside of the island of Ireland for the first time.

His trips abroad included two trips to France to watch Ireland play in the European football championships in June 2016, as well as trips to the UK, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Switzerland, Latvia, Croatia and Turkey.

Higgins’ busiest years were 2013 and 2015, when he used MATS 15 times each, while his least busy years were 2011, when he used it twice, and 2017, when he used it three times.

His longest journey was in June 2018, when he spent a total of seven hours and ten minutes aboard the Government’s Learjet on a four-day round trip to Latvia.

Right to Know case

The figures were provided to TheJournal.ie by the transparency group Right to Know, who obtained them following an order by the Commissioner for Environmental Information earlier this year.

The Commissioner’s order followed the refusal of an AIE request to the Department of Defence after the group initially sought to obtain the figures in 2016.

The Department claimed that the information sought by Right to Know was not environmental and that the President was exempt from requests under AIE Regulations.

In its submission to the Commissioner, Right to Know argued that the information requested was related to the environment, citing a previous ruling by the Commissioner in relation to the use of MATS by the Government.

That request – which was also made under AIE Regulations – sought similar details about the use of the service to those being requested about the President by Right to Know.

Commissioner Peter Tyndall ultimately found that the information requested by Right to Know was related to the environment, and said the Department’s refusal to release it was therefore unjustified.

In June this year, he ordered the Department to annul its refusal of Right to Know’s original request under AIE Regulations, and directed it to make the information available to the group.

With reporting from Right to Know. You can read details of each president’s use of MATS here and here.

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