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€6k jet bill to fetch TD for Cabinet vote

THE Government jet was sent to London to collect a Fianna Fail TD in time for a Dail vote on the latest Cabinet reshuffle.

Taxpayers had already shelled out for a commercial flight for Minister of State Billy Kelleher, but will now also have to pay €5,900 for the use of the Learjet.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen signed off on the use of the jet at €2,950 an hour because he feared the Government would not have enough numbers to get the reshuffle through the Dail, which would have sparked a General Election.

However, the coalition partners won the vote by a comfortable margin of 83 to 75, meaning Mr Kelleher's absence would not have been noticed.

The Cork TD was returning from Australia where he had been as part of the Government's St Patrick's Day trips

He had taken a commercial flight to Heathrow on Tuesday afternoon and was due to take another scheduled flight to arrive in Dublin around 8pm.

That would have resulted in him missing the Dail vote to approve the reshuffle, which took place around 6.15pm.

The Government was afraid to take the chance of losing a single vote after Fine Gael refused to honour the normal "pairing" system, whereby the chief whips agree to balance out voting numbers if a member cannot be in the house.

Reports today suggested that Mr Kelleher was unaware of the commotion but was met by an official when he landed at Heathrow around 4pm.

He was told that the Government jet was waiting and that he would be landing in Baldonnel before being immediately transferred to Kildare Street.

Government sources have blamed Fine Gael for forcing them to take the emergency measure to ensure the reshuffle made it through the Dail.

But a Fine Gael spokesperson has defended the decision not to honour the pairing arrangement, saying the party was "tightening up" on the system.

"We recognise that the Government have tight numbers and we're going to make sure that the Government have to get their votes in if they want to get their votes through," he said.