Michael D Higgins says he used private jet following security advice from office

President Michael D Higgins has claimed that he had to travel to Belfast by private jet following advice from his office on security issues.

Mr Higgins said he was grateful for the statement released by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) which disputed his earlier claims that he travelled by jet because police in Northern Ireland could not provide security for him by road.

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.”

Mr Higgins was asked for clarity over his previous comments that his staff were advised “that for security reasons I couldn’t be picked up at the border” during last May’s trip.

He made the comments during a televised presidential debate on Wednesday evening.

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

“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.

Mr Higgins was speaking as he launched his Shared Ireland, Shared Island initiative at the Droichead Arts Centre on Monday, days before the public go to the polls for the presidential election.

Helping him launch the campaign was one of the architects of the Good Friday Agreement, Seamus Mallon.

The former SDLP deputy first minister introduced Mr Higgins and praised him for his previous seven years in office.

Sinn Féin presidential candidate Liadh Ní Riada said she sent Mr Higgins a letter calling for him to respond to a number of “serious questions” ahead of Tuesday night’s televised debate.

She posted on her Twitter account: “It is my strong view that discussing these issues publicly is the only means left to reassure our citizens that public finances are being properly used, particularly at a time of huge difficulties for many families.”

Mr Higgins told the crowd at Droichead Arts Centre, which included SDLP leader Colum Eastwood and former leader Mark Durkan, that he was operating the campaign under the constraints of being a president in office.

He said that if he is re-elected, he will launch a new initiative which he hopes will “spark an inclusive, respectful discussion on how all of us can live together and how we can treat our differences with respect”.

“In our interpretation of the past, we do so in a way recognising that it bears on how we are living in the present and what we might do together in the future,” he added.

“We must differ, yes we will differ but we must do so with the necessary courtesies of a republican discourse.”

On Monday morning, presidential candidate Peter Casey posted a video on his Twitter account which criticised the president’s Bernese mountain dogs and claimed that the president was using public money to cover grooming costs.

I cover the costs of my dogs, be it their food or veterinary or grooming. I would recommend people get a dog, it's a good thing

Mr Higgins said he wanted to assure the Irish public that his dogs “are well”.

“I walked with them last night and they were looking particularly well,” he added.

“I cover the costs of my dogs, be it their food or veterinary or grooming.

“I would recommend people get a dog, it’s a good thing.”

Mr Mallon introduced the president and used the opportunity to hit out at the ongoing Brexit negotiations.

He said that the Good Friday Agreement defines the British government’s role as to provide for agreement between the people of Northern Ireland.

“At the heart of it is two sovereign governments dealing with a problem which has been with us for at least five centuries,” he added.

He blamed Brexit and a “limping British government” for the breakdown of relations between Ireland and the British government, saying the relationship has “almost disappeared”.

“It is very low indeed because the British government has chosen not to work the Good Friday Agreement in terms of the British Irish Governmental arrangements,” he added.

“It has chosen not to copper-fasten that relationship with the island of Ireland but to replace a sovereign Irish government with eight members of the DUP.”

- Press Association

Earlier: President Michael D Higgins says his own office advised he use a government jet to visit Belfast and not the PSNI.

The incumbent had said he had to fly to Northern Ireland last May as the Northern Irish Police Service could not provide the required security by road.

This claim was disputed by the PSNI over the weekend.

On Saturday, the PSNI told the BBC: “It is the long-established policy of the PSNI not to comment on the security arrangements made for individuals.”

Assistant chief constable Alan Todd added: “The PSNI routinely work with visiting heads of state and other key figures visiting Northern Ireland and make full provisions for their safety in line with their requirements.”

Speaking in Drogheda today, President Higgins clarified that he used the jet on the advice of his office.

"I have visited Northern Ireland many times in the last seven years and I take the advice from my office," said the President.

"And my offices judges these trips in terms I think of the considerations that they take into account are logistics and security."

Earlier today, presidential candidate Liadh Ní Riada revealed she has sent a letter to Mr Higgins asking him to explain his use of public money.

The Sinn Féin MEP says the incumbent has serious questions to answer before the final debate of the campaign tomorrow night.

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