Bertie Ahern: Paddy's Day visit

US CUSTOMS officials insisted on searching the government jet for contraband as then-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern prepared to jet off for a St Patrick's Day visit to Washington, DC.

The Air Corps was forced to make the plane available for an hour before takeoff so that the plane could be inspected.

At the same time, US warplanes – and flights suspected to have been involved in rendition – were routinely transiting through Shannon without being searched.

Reference to the controversial customs search is made in the logbooks of the government's €7,890-an-hour Gulfstream IV jet, which has been obtained by the Sunday Tribune.

An entry for 16 March, 2008, marked "NB" says: "Plane must be in Dublin Airport at 12.30 to allow US customs officials to check plane."

The Gulfstream eventually headed for the United States with the Taoiseach and his advisers on board. On arrival at their first stop-off in Scranton, Pennsylvania, two secret service agents joined the passenger list for the onward flight to Washington DC.

The logbooks also show how "junior" ministers were often booted off the government jet and forced on to commercial flights to make room for their more senior colleagues.

In March 2008, then foreign affairs minister Dermot Ahern had been hoping to travel on one of the government jets but was gazumped by Mary Harney. The Department of Defence offered a replacement plane to Ahern instead.

A note in the logbooks says: "Beechcraft offered to Dept of Foreign Affairs instead... Harney entitled to Learjet as senior minister... DFA refused Beech [craft], but will take CASA [another airplane] instead."

Detailed instructions on what to feed government representatives are also made.

On one transatlantic flight, Air Corps staff were told to serve food 90 minutes into the flight, with Mary Harney requiring a "light salad, no cheese as starter" and fish for her main course.

It was to be followed by fruit for dessert, tea and coffee, and fresh scones as the plane approached its destination.

Another minister with very specific requirements was Tánaiste Mary Coughlan, who asked for brown bread with no butter, tomato, mayonnaise and a yoghurt.

In special circumstances, regional airports were actually kept open late to facilitate ministers travelling home. On one journey to Brussels for Coughlan, Knock Airport agreed to "remain open until 20:30 to facilitate [the] mission". Changes were also made for personal commitments.

During one trip to Brussels, Minister Micheál Martin asked to return to Ireland via Cork so that he could attend a funeral. Martin also asked that the plane "wait in Cork" so that he could fly to Dublin.

Aside from the two government jets, the Cabinet also had use of other aircraft including the Beechcraft, the CASA and helicopters.

On one occasion in January 2008, health minister Mary Harney had been hoping to travel to Cork on board the Learjet. However, she was told the plane could not land due to high winds and was offered the use of a CASA fishery patrol vessel instead.

She declined, perhaps fearing a repeat of the controversy when she used the CASA plane to attend the opening of an off-licence belonging to a friend in Co Leitrim.

One potential controversy that might have been avoided was the embarrassment caused when it emerged that on 71 separate occasions, Central Bank staff had travelled abroad with their spouses.

The government claimed they knew little or nothing about it yet on a flight to Larnaca in Cyprus in January 2008, former Central Bank governor John Hurley was accompanied by his wife. A passenger on the flight that day was then tánaiste and finance minister Brian Cowen.

The documents were released by the Department of Defence in response to a Freedom of Information request with certain redactions.

The jets were also used for VIPs visiting Ireland with the president of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso enjoying a short jaunt to Cork on the Gulfstream IV.

Some ministers even managed to use the jet to save a few euro for their Departments.

Minister Willie O'Dea, on a trip to Chad, agreed that an Air Corps officer, who was due to start a tour in Africa, could jump on board. There were "issues with commercial flights" and it was agreed the passenger could use the jump-seat. Another impromptu passenger was the then EU Commissioner Charlie McCreevy who hopped aboard a Learjet flight to France back in 2008 in the company of Brian Lenihan.