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Saturday 16 December 2017

Harney wings clipped

Karl Brophy and Conor Sweeney

THE EU Commission has ordered an inquiry into Tanaiste Mary Harney's use of a Government plane to open a friend's off-licence.

The Progressive Democrats leader flew to Sligo last month in an Air Corps fisheries aircraft at public expense to launch the Next Door store owned by a barrister friend in Manorhamilton, Co Leitrim.

It emerged last night that Taoiseach Bertie Ahern had personally sanctioned the controversial use of the CASA plane, which is normally used for enforcing the country's fishing rules.

The Opposition has accused both the Taoiseach and the Tanaiste of abuse of power. Fine Gael and Labour have pledged to raise the matter in the Dail when it returns.

However, the Irish Independent has learned that the Government will face an even more stringent examination of Ms Harney's use of the plane from the EU Commission.

The Commission co-funded the purchase of the two CASA fisheries aircraft in 1994 and footed half of the #38m (Euro48.25) bill, but attached strict conditions to their financial assistance.

One of those conditions was that the airplanes had to be used 90pc of the time for fisheries surveillance purposes.

A spokesperson for the European Fisheries Commissioner, Franz Fischler, confirmed last night that they were launching a detailed investigation into the Government's use of the aircraft.

If Mary Harney and her Cabinet colleagues are found to have breached the terms agreed with Brussels, millions of Euros could be reclaimed by the Commission. "We must look into it to see if they respected this 10pc limit. We are going to look into this record," the Commission spokesperson said.

They insist that legally they are quite entitled to seek repayment for any aid payouts that have not kept to the agreed conditions.

The Tanaiste, along with husband Brian Geoghegan, arrived at Sligo airport on the fishery protection aircraft on Friday, December 14.

At the airport she was collected by her own chauffeur driven State Mercedes which had been sent ahead from Dublin and taken to nearby Manorhamilton where she opened the Next Door off-licence, owned by old friend Fergus O'Hagan. The couple were flown back to Dublin at midnight on the same aircraft.

A spokesperson for the PD leader last night defended the use of the airplane and claimed the trip only cost taxpayers approximately Euro1,500.

He added Ms Harney had a busy day of appointments and would not have made it in time for what she regarded as an "important" ministerial function. The Tanaiste is expected home from her honeymoon in Africa today.

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