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Monday 23 April 2018

'All above board' - Leo on the defensive as he clarifies Trump 'joke'

Leo Varadkar speaks to reporters in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. Photo: PA
Leo Varadkar speaks to reporters in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. Photo: PA

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has insisted he did not contact Clare County Council on behalf of US President Donald Trump in relation to a wind farm planning application.

The Taoiseach was under pressure to clarify his role in the planning decision after he referenced it during a St Patrick's Day lunch in Washington on Thursday.

He had said he contacted the council about the application for the wind farm, which was near Mr Trump's Doonbeg golf course.

Mr Trump opposed granting the permission.

With Mr Trump looking on, Mr Varadkar told Speaker Paul Ryan's lunch event that upon taking the call he contacted the local county council and "endeavoured to do what I could do about it".

Humorous

Mr Varadkar, who was tourism minister at the time, said he approached the local authority after Mr Trump phoned him directly.

The nine-turbine wind farm scheme was proposed by the Clare Coastal Wind Power company.

Last night in New York, Mr Varadkar said he did not directly contact the Clare authority, but contacted Failte Ireland.

He emailed Failte Ireland CEO Shaun Quinn on February 24, 2014.

"Hi Shaun. I took a call from Donald Trump last Friday. He is concerned about plans to build very large wind farms near Doonbeg.

"I don't want to get into the nitty gritty of it but I did commit to asking Failte to review the planning applications or development plan for Clare as appropriate with a view to making observations if the agency shared his concerns about the impact on landscapes and tourism.

"I would appreciate it if you could do so. Leo," it said.

"I'm happy to clarify that. I was telling a humorous anecdote about something that happened four years ago," Mr Varadkar said yesterday.

"The humorous part and the joke was that the president was giving me credit and praise for something I didn't actually do.

"I didn't have a clear recollection at the time but I have gone back and checked with my staff and the records.

"I didn't actually contact Clare County Council, either verbally or in writing.

"I did, however, contact Failte. I did that via email to the CEO. All entirely within procedure and all entirely above board."

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said claims Mr Varadkar's office contacted the council "to check the status of a planning file" - rather than Mr Varadkar himself - did not add up.

"Leo Varadkar openly stated that he rang Clare County Council to enquire about the planning permission for the wind farm near Trump's Doonbeg resort," he said.

"We believe that story. The fact that he could not see the intervention was inappropriate is what he has to defend.

"The contradictory statement from Government that it was officials rather than the minister who made the call is not credible. Their attempt to muddy the waters makes matters worse.

"Public confidence has been further undermined by the statement from Clare County Council that they never got a call from anyone."

Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin said: "I think the issue is jarring at every level."

Speaking on RTE Radio One's Today With Sean O'Rourke, he questioned "the notion" that Mr Varadkar would tell a "folksy tale" about a businessman contacting a senior politician.

Mr Howlin said it was ironic that Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy last week sent a directive to every council "in which he makes it crystal clear" that planning matters are only to be dealt with by the properly delegated officials, such as a council chief executive.

"The bottom line is senior business people ringing senior government ministers on a planning matter is something that we thought we put behind us," he added.

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