Taoiseach says he "misspoke" over planning inquiry on behalf of Donald Trump

Leo Varadkar says he contacted Fáilte Ireland on behalf of the US businessman

Taoiseach says he "misspoke" over planning inquiry on behalf of Donald Trump

The Taosieach Leo Varadkar. Image: Sean Defoe/Newstalk

The Taoiseach has said he never contacted Clare County Council about a proposed wind farm next to Donald Trump's hotel in Doonbeg.

Leo Varadkar said he misspoke yesterday when he told a Capitol Hill audience that he had “endeavoured to do what I could” on behalf of Donald Trump after the US businessman he told him he had “a problem” with the proposed wind farm.

He said it was actually Fáilte Ireland he contacted after receiving Mr Trump’s phone call four years ago.

Mr Varadkar has faced fierce criticism from across party lines following the comments.

He is now facing calls to clarify exactly who he discussed the planning issue with and what was said.

This evening, he claimed he got the story wrong when telling it to the US audience - he denied however, that it was a blunder to bring up the incident at all:

“I am happy to clarify that,” he said. “I was telling a humorous anecdote about something that happened about four years ago.”

“The humorous part of it and the joke was, of course, that the President was giving me credit and praise for something I didn’t actually do.

“I didn’t have a clear recollection of it at the time but I have gone back now and checked with my staff and checked the records.

“I didn’t contact Clare County Council, either verbally or in writing.

“I did however contact Fáilte and I did that by an email to the CEO of Fáilte.”

“Piss-take”  

Speaking on Capitol Hill yesterday, Mr Varadkar said he first thought it was a “piss-take” when he got a phone call from the US businessman about proposals to build a wind farm near his Doonbeg golf course.

He said Mr Trump told him there was a “problem nearby.”

“Somebody was trying to build a wind farm and that of course could have a real impact on tourism and the beauty of the landscape,” said Mr Varadkar.

"So I endeavoured to do what I could about it and I rang the county council and inquired about the planning permission - and subsequently the planning permission was declined - thus the landscape being preserved.

"And the president has very kindly given me credit for that - although I do think it probably would have been refused anyway.”

This evening he insisted that everything he did on behalf of Mr Trump was above board.

He said he addressed his inquiry to the then-CEO of Fáilte Ireland Shaun Quinn:

“Fáilte as you know is Ireland’s tourism agency; it has a statutory remit to look at planning applications and to see if they could have a negative impact on tourism.

“They were aware of the development already and did make observations to the council.

“So all entirely within procedure; all entirely above board and I am happy to clarify that.”

Lapse of judgement

Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin has labelled the revelations "extraordinary," adding that the Taoiseach is guilty of a "serious lapse of judgement."

He argued: "The Taoiseach should recognise that, apologise for his original interference, and say that on reflection it was entirely inappropriate for a Cabinet minister to interfere in a planning matter, as he apparently did." 

Fianna Fáil's Michéal Martin also called for greater clarity:

Mr Varadkar had previously made a reference to the incident in a Time magazine interview last summer.

Clare County Council, meanwhile, says the wind farm planning application file includes "no representation by Leo Varadkar, the then minster for tourism and sport or any elected member."

"Shocking"

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan labelled  a “shocking admission from the Taoiseach.”

He said it “harks back to the very dark days in the Irish planning system, where political interference ensured that the rich and powerful got what they wanted.”

“There is no doubt that he exercised undue influence and undermined due process with his intervention,” he said. “It was and is completely inappropriate.”

“It is a shocking error of judgement.

“Clare County Council now need to outline who the Minister contacted and whether there is a record of what was said.”

Banana republic

Solidarity TD Mick Barry said the comments "give the impression that Ireland operates a bit like a banana republic" while his party colleague Paul Murphy says Mr Varadkar has 'very serious questions' to answer.

"Who did he phone in Clare County Council?" Deputy Murphy asked. "What did he say?"

"Why does Clare County Council say they have no record of this phone call? Varadkar and Clare County Council must provide clear answers."

Support

This afternoon, the Minister for Health Simon Harris claimed the controversy had been “blown completely out of proportion.”

“I think opposition politicians need to also be truthful and not hypocritical,” he said.

“Many, many politicians make inquiries about the status of a planning application for a new business, a new school or a house that a constituent would like to build in their area and I think that is what the Taoiseach did.

“He made an inquiry as to the status, no more, no less and I think it has been blown completely out of proportion.”

He accused opposition politicians of playing "party politics" while the Taoiseach was on an official State visit to a "country we have very important relationships with." 

“We used to have a tradition in this country that [...] when the leader of the Government went abroad that politicians didn’t play party politics," he said.

“I think it is unfortunate that that has happened.” 

A spokesperson for the Taoiseach yesterday said: “It is normal for Ministers to seek information on planning applications when issues are raised by citizens, businesses or investors.”

He said the matter “has been mentioned publicly on many occasions by the Taoiseach” adding that it “was not a court case or judicial matter.”

With reporting from Sean Defoe, Juliette Gash and Stephen McNeice