Update 10.30am: The Government jet was flown around empty during the recession to keep up flying hours, according to the Taoiseach.
Leo Varadkar was addressing criticism of the President for using the Lear jet on a trip to Belfast.
He says the costs associated with using the plane are minimal.
The Taoiseach says travelling by land would also have cost the taxpayer money.
"I know there is an understandable public concern around the cost of using a jet but bear in mind that the jet is owned by the government, the pilots are paid anyway," said
"We had a very strange situation during the recession when it was actually being flown around empty because the pilots have to keep up a certain number of flying hours and the added cost is actually very small.
"And there is obviously security costs associated with travelling by land as well."
We’re having ‘Tea for Michael D’ this morning.October 23, 2018
President Michael D Higgins’ use of the Government Learjet to an event in Belfast cost the taxpayer about €5,670.
The President is under fire from his rival candidates over his use of the jet to fly to an event in Belfast, which they have branded as “extravagance” and a “waste of taxpayers’ money”.
The Department of Defence refuses to publish details of the President’s use of the jet because of what it called “long-standing practice” but, according to official figures, the return trip to Belfast would require up to 90 minutes of flight time.
President Higgins flew to Belfast from Dublin airport on the Learjet on May 29 to deliver a speech at Queen’s University. His presidential car was driven from Dublin to Belfast to pick him up at the airport.
During a televised presidential debate on Virgin Media Television last Wednesday, President Higgins claimed his staff had been advised “that for security reasons I couldn’t be picked up at the border” to be escorted to Belfast.
The Government jet costs €3,780 per 60 minutes of time in flight. Therefore, the estimated cost to the taxpayer was €5,670.
There was mounting criticism yesterday from his rivals and the matter is likely to dominate the final TV debate on RTÉ tonight.
Seán Gallagher said the use of the jet amounted to “extravagance” in the office of the Áras.
“It is a waste of taxpayers’ money,” he added.
Sinn Féin’s Liadh Ní Riada made it known that she had written to President Higgins about the use of the jet.
Ms Ní Riada said she sent the letter to the President “in relation to a number of very serious questions” that were raised over the weekend.
In response, President Higgins insisted he acted on the advice of his office.
He said: “As far as I am concerned, I am very happy with the official PSNI statement. I welcome it, I agree with it, and I am happy to reciprocate to it by again expressing my thanks for their co-operation and courtesy.”
He was asked for clarity over previous comments that his staff were advised “that for security reasons I couldn’t be picked up at the border” during the trip.
“I have visited Northern Ireland many times in the last seven years and I take the advice from my office and my office judges these trips in terms of — the considerations they take into account are logistics and security,” he added.
Áras an Uachtaráin said it had “nothing to add” to what the President said in relation to the use of the jet.
This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.