The Tánaiste is standing over her use of an Air Corps aircraft to fly to Sligo Airport, according to a spokesman. On 14 December, Mary Harney and her husband were flown to Sligo and then taken in her official car to Manorhamilton, where she officially opened an off-licence owned by her friend, Fergus O'Hagan.

The spokesman said that the aircraft in question, the CASA, is very often used for official transport and Ms Harney was scrupulous about not using it for personal engagements or party or constituency meetings. He said that her business in Dublin ran late that day and she would not have reached Manorhamilton on time by car.

The spokesman said that the event was a significant one locally. He said that it was the opening of a restored stone building which had been derelict in the town for many years and it was followed by a number of meetings with business people, community and women's groups.

The spokesman emphasised that Mr O'Hagan was an old friend and not an old boyfriend. Jim Higgins of Fine Gael said that the Tánaiste abused her position as a government minister.

He said that the CASA was designed specifically for marine patrol and should not be used by ministers for engagements like this, which could in no way be classified as official. Earlier today, PD Senator John Dardis defended Mrs Harney's use of the aircraft. He told RTÉ News that he did not see anything improper about it.