Thursday 15 November 2018

President Higgins faces calls to 'come clean' on reasons for travelling to Belfast on Government plane

Michael D Higgins (Niall Carson/PA)
Michael D Higgins (Niall Carson/PA)

President Michael D Higgins is facing calls to clarify his claim that he was forced to use the Government’s Learjet to travel to Belfast for “security reasons”.

During a televised presidential debate last Wednesday, Mr Higgins said he flew to Belfast while his car was driven to an airport in the city to pick him up due to security advice he received.

He subsequently told the Irish Independent on the campaign trail that the PSNI was not able to provide security for his trip to Belfast.

However, the BBC is tonight reporting comments from PSNI sources who dismissed the President’s public comment.

"It would be inconceivable that the President of Ireland would not have been afforded security if it had been requested," a PSNI source told the BBC.

Another source told the BBC there is anger within the PSNI at the suggestion that it did not have sufficient resources to escort Mr Higgins from the border to Belfast.

Responding to the BBC story, the President’s spokesperson said for “logistical reasons and on security advice” the President flew by Government jet to Belfast in May to deliver the Harri Holkeri lecture.

“The President has made many visits to Northern Ireland by car and is grateful for the support received from the security services. It would not be appropriate to further comment on the detail of security arrangements,” he added.

The spokesman refused to say who provided the security advice.

In a statement issued tonight, Sinn Fein presidential candidate Liadh Ní Riada called on Mr Higgins to “come clean” on his reasons for travelling to Belfast on the Lear jet.

“He flew to Belfast in a Lear Jet, funded by the taxpayer, while his car was driven from Dublin to Belfast to pick him up at the airport,” she said.

“That claim has now been directly disputed by the PSNI. They reject this “security” claim who say it would be “inconceivable” that the President of Ireland would not have been afforded security if it had been requested.

“It is clear now that Michael D Higgins claim has caused considerable anger within the PSNI.

“Michael D. Higgins must make a public statement on this matter immediately. This is very serious. He must come clean.”

The hourly cost of flying the Learjet is estimated by the Department of Defence to be €3,780 per hour.

Records show that in the first three months of this year, Mr Higgins used the jet to travel to London, Belfast, Athens and Kerry.

The total flight time cost was close to €50,000 for these trips.

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