AGRICULTURE Minister Simon Coveney took a government jet flight costing more than €26,000 to attend ribbon-cutting events on a trade mission in the North African country of Algeria.
The Irish Independent has learned that among the functions lined up for the trip at the end of September was the opening of a supermarket in the small coastal city of Oran in the north of the country.
Mr Coveney was granted use of the government jet by Taoiseach Enda Kenny after a departmental official argued that alternative flights on commercial airlines would make it "impossible" to complete his itinerary, including the opening of the convenience store.
Yesterday the Irish Independent revealed how Justice Minister Alan Shatter was refused use of the jet in July to attend an EU meeting in Poland because the Taoiseach decided that commercial options were "more suitable". If this flight had been approved it would have cost about €20,000.
A spokesman for the minister said the cost of commercial air tickets for the seven-delegate party had been calculated at €16,331 -- €10,000 less than the eventual cost of the flights on the government jet.
The spokesman last night defended the minister's use of the jet, saying that the minister believed that "the use of the government jet was justified in this particular occasion".
The spokesman highlighted the importance of trade links with Algeria, the "tight schedule" on the trip, and "the restricted options available with commercial travel".
According to the spokesman, "security concerns regarding internal travel within Algeria" had also been taken into consideration, though such concerns are not noted on the written request submitted to the Taoiseach's office.
The proposed itinerary for the trip shows that Mr Coveney's meeting with his Algerian counterpart Rachid Benaissa was scheduled to last just 45 minutes and that three of the engagements involved opening new Irish projects in Algeria, including the convenience store in Oran.
Branded Bia Metro, the small supermarket welcomes customers with a sign written in Arabic, French, English and Irish.
Dublin-based businessman Kevin O'Boyle, who set up the shop with his Algerian business partner Zemri Benheddi, said that it was a "complete coincidence" that Mr Coveney was visiting Oran at the time that his shop was to open.
He said that the minister's role in the ceremony had been arranged by the Irish Dairy Board office in the city and said "he very kindly agreed to. . . do the opening for us".
Mr O'Boyle said he hoped to open a chain of the stores in Algeria and explained how they named the shop saying, "Bia is obviously the Irish word for food but in Arabic, the way it would be pronounced sounds like the word that means 'sale'."
Mr Coveney's private secretary sent the email request to use the government jet to the Taoiseach's office on August 12.
The purpose of the visit to Algiers and Oran on September 25 and 26 is recorded as "trade facilitation and promotion visit" on behalf of Irish meat and dairy exporters.
The first day was to start with a meeting in the offices of the Algerian agriculture ministry with the aim of lobbying Mr Benaissa to review restrictions on the export of Irish beef.
Mr Coveney later described these talks as "extremely constructive" but secured no commitments on the matter.
Last year Mr Coveney proposed "tough new rules" for use of the government jet when he was Fine Gael Transport spokesman.
He said the jet was "being abused by ministers" and said the rules for its use were "outdated and have been flouted by ministers for too long".