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Varadkar defends Coveney amid reports he 'questioned judgment' of Air Corps pilot

Simon Coveney called an Air Corps pilot to ask why he couldn’t be flown to Cork, it’s reported.

Image: Shutterstock/urbazon

TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR has defended the conduct of Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney, following a report today that he questioned the judgment of an Air Corps pilot who refused to fly him to Cork.

According to today’s Irish Times, Coveney – who was Defence Minister at the time of the incident in question, in 2015 – called the pilot after the morning flight was cancelled due to a fog forecast.

The article, based on FOIs of emails between Defence officials, says that the Air Corps was “very unhappy” at Coveney’s decision to call the pilot and question his decision.

The Minister commented in the course of that call that he had a very important meeting in Cork, one of the emails said.

Speaking on his way into this morning’s Cabinet meeting, Coveney said:

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 are in the Naval Service, the Air Corps or the Army – and I think my record [as Minister for Defence] will show that.

Micheál Martin raised the issue during Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil this afternoon, asking Varadkar whether his cabinet colleague had apologised for the phonecall to the pilot.

The Fianna Fáil leader said safety should never be compromised.

Varadkar, who defeated Coveney in the Fine Gael leadership contest earlier this summer, defended the former Defence Minister and said he did not think it was correct to describe his behaviour as “being intimidatory”.

“When it comes to aviation safety must come first,” the Taoiseach said.

“As far as we are concerned safety always comes first and it is always the pilot’s decision to fly, not the passenger,” he added.

Coveney’s intention, he said, “was just to ask a question … there is no suggestion that Minister Coveney or any minister would try and second guess the judgement of a pilot”.

When asked about the incident today, Education Minister Richard Bruton said he did not know the details of the conversation that took place, but reiterated what the Taoiseach said in Dáil today.

“He was very clear that Minister Coveney may have asked some questions, but at all times, as the Taoiseach said, aircraft safety was the primary concern,” Bruton told reporters today.

When asked if it was normal protocol for ministers to use Defence Force aircraft to travel to meetings, he said:

I don’t know what the protocol… As you know, we have sought to use aircraft on a minimal basis, but at times they are used. Of course a Minister for Defence is in a particular privileged position in that he has responsibility and his needs would be an important consideration.

In addition to holding the position of Taoiseach, Varadkar is currently Minister for Defence too. Enda Kenny also held both positions before his resignation as Taoiseach last month. Paul Kehoe is the Minister of State with special responsibility for Defence.

- With reporting from Christina Finn 

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