Wednesday 25 April 2018

'I didn't try to intimidate pilot to fly in bad weather' - Coveney responds to controversy

Foreign Minister Simon Coveney. Picture: PA
Foreign Minister Simon Coveney. Picture: PA
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Minister Simon Coveney has denied his phone call to an Air Corps pilot was a bid to get him to fly in bad weather.

The aborted flight was supposed to have brought Mr Coveney to a jobs announcement in his native Cork.

It is at the centre of controversy after it emerged that the then-defence minister personally called the pilot to question him on why it was cancelled.

Fog had been forecast on the day, June 17, 2015, and the Air Corps was later said to have been "very unhappy" about Mr Coveney's intervention.

Mr Coveney last night denied he had been trying to influence the pilot's decision.

His spokeswoman said the flight had originally been scheduled so that Mr Coveney could attend two "significant events" that day. The first was a meeting with a senior Iranian minister in Newbridge, Co Kildare.

The helicopter was then to bring him to the second event, a multi-million investment and jobs announcement by a medical devices company in Cork, which she said Mr Coveney was to attend on behalf of then-Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

In the end, Mr Coveney travelled to both events by road, but his spokeswoman said he was late to the jobs announcement in Cork.

"The minister's conversation with the pilot was purely to gain a first-hand understanding as to the concern around flying and was not an attempt to influence the pilot's decision," she said.

"As the minister has stated, he has the utmost respect for the Defence Forces and its professionalism, and his record as minister for defence speaks for itself in this area."

The issue was raised in the Dáil by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin.

He said the report about the incident was "disturbing" and he was surprised Mr Coveney had called the pilot.

Mr Martin said it appeared there had been "tart exchanges" between them and that the Air Corps were "very unhappy".

Mr Martin said the phone call "can be construed - and I'm not saying it is - as some form of intimidation or pressure on the pilot".

"Safety should never be compromised by anyone's diary agenda," he said.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar defended Mr Coveney.

He rejected the characterisation of a phone call to a pilot as "being intimidatory" and added: "I certainly don't think this was Minister Coveney's intention."

Mr Varadkar said it was "just to ask a question".

"There is absolutely no suggestion that Minister Coveney or any minister in this Government would try to second-guess the judgment of a pilot," he said. Mr Varadkar also said "safety comes first and it is always the pilot's decision, not the passenger's, as to whether they should fly or not."

Irish Independent

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