I for one can see proposals for a replacement Government Jet, in these times of hardship and strife, being met with universal calmness and good grace.
The government jet which is used to fly the Taoiseach, ministers and the President is getting old and must be replaced by the end of next year “at the latest”.
The Learjet is becoming “less reliable” and will have to be replaced by 2024, Tánaiste and Defence Minister Micheál Martin has been told by his officials.
There have been many issues with the Learjet in recent years, which have inconvenienced travelling ministers.
Government will now have to make a decision as to whether it should be replaced with a new multi-million aircraft.
The jet, which has been in use since it was purchased for €8m in 2004, took 56 trips in 2021 and 63 trips last year.
One of the things Government doesn’t really get enough credit for, in fact, is the absolutely remarkably good deal they got on the existing Government Jet. Eight Million Euro is a lot of money to anyone, but in the first instance, it is peanuts to literally any Government Department. And in the second instance, a brand new Learjet 45 today would cost you somewhere between 10 and 20million. The Government bought second hand, which should meet anyone’s definition of thriftiness, and have flown so many miles in the thing that the purchase cost per airmile probably worked out at a few euro.
I confess to being endlessly fascinated by public attitudes in Ireland to the Government Jet, because it is one of the few political footballs which is almost uniquely Irish: Nobody in the UK ever makes a particular political scandal of the fact that the Royal Family and senior UK politicians have at their disposal a leased Airbus A321 – a plane with a retail price of over 100 million quid. The French President travels in superior style – he has at his disposal an Airbus A330 worth over 170 million. And let us not mention the US President, who not only has a specially configure 747, but generally has about six 100million fighters flying on his wingtips, just in case.
In basically none of those countries, nor in any other that comes to mind, is Government executive travel a matter of particular controversy. The plane is not gifted, after all, to the party in power or the politician in charge: It is both an instrument and an ambassador of state in itself. When the UK PM’s very large plane, bedecked in the Union flag, lands in your town, you know someone important has arrived. It represents the authority and prestige of the nation, not Rishi Sunak.
In Ireland, though, the Government Jet for some reason is seen as a kind of symbol of elite out of touchness – a social barrier between the people, and those who rule them. Let me offer a theory for why this might be:
One of the most under-appreciated things about Irish politics, compared to most countries and certainly compared to those listed above, is how accessible Irish politicians are. There are, for example, remarkably few long serving TDs who didn’t first “make their bones” as councillors representing local areas. It is not an exaggeration to say that Leo Varadkar almost certainly knows many more of his constituents personally than Rishi Sunak does. That is the nature of our electoral system: You don’t win without shaking more hands than the people who lose.
This familiarity encourages both public and politicians to act as if the people we are electing are ordinary folk, just like them.
And that, in turn, makes the perceived accumulation of riches and status less acceptable. We have a parliament of local politicians done good, rather than a parliament of national leaders.
And so it becomes that the Government Jet is a symbol of something much more than just Government travel: Taking a flight on it is almost a curse in that it means that you are now out of touch with the ordinary man or woman who elected you, who will never in their lives, most likely, sit on a private plane.
Do it, and you’re not one of us any more. You are one of them.
All of this means that the prospect of a new Government Jet are remarkably slim: The present Government certainly won’t want to be seen to be splashing out on one ahead of an election. And Sinn Fein, if they sweep to power, will presumably make a point of making Taoiseach McDonald’s foreign travel as comically uncomfortable as possible, to show what a trooper she is and how in touch with the working man and woman she remains. It would almost be a shock if she doesn’t end up in the hold, with the luggage, just to save the poor taxpayer some cash.
All of this is, to my mind, rather silly. We’re a proper country, and proper countries have proper travel arrangements for their leaders. If I were the present Government, I’d order a great big stonking airbus, and dare Taoiseach McDonald not to use it if and when she takes over.