Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has sparked a major political controversy after he bragged about lobbying on behalf of US president Donald Trump in relation to his Doonbeg resort in Co Clare.
Mr Varadkar has come under fire for his “entirely inappropriate political interference” in a planning application on behalf of Mr Trump when he was transport minister back in 2014.
Speaking in Washington at the Speaker’s Lunch on Capitol Hill, attended by the US president, Mr Varadkar admitted that he had made calls to Clare County Council after Mr Trump had rang him about a proposed wind farm close to his Doonbeg resort.
Mr Varadkar, departing from his script, said both men had been in contact around three or four years ago before Mr Trump became president and he was tourism minister.
“I endeavoured to do what I could do about it and I rang the county council and enquired about the planning permission and subsequently the planning permission was declined and the wind farm was never built — 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,” the Taoiseach said during his speech.
The Taoiseach explains how he got a surprise call from Donald Trump a few years ago pic.twitter.com/VBluzmdI2s— RTÉ News (@rtenews) March 15, 2018
“My assistant, John Carroll, said that there’s a call. Donald Trump wants to speak to you. And I just thought: This can’t be the case, this has to be a piss-take by one of my staff members.”
The tone and tenor of Mr Varadkar’s comments sparked a wave of criticism back home and Mr Varadkar’s handlers moved to try and contain the controversy, insisting last night that the comments were meant “as a light-hearted joke” as part of his speech.
His spokesman said: “As minister for tourism, Leo Varadkar received a call from Donald Trump regarding a wind farm proposal near Doonbeg, which is a significant tourism asset on the west coast.
“It’s normal for ministers to seek information on planning applications when issues are raised by citizens, businesses or investors. This matter has been mentioned publicly on many occasions by the Taoiseach. It was not a court case or judicial matter.”
Clare County Council, in response to queries from the Irish Examiner, said there “is no representation by Leo Varadkar, the then minister for tourism and sport, or any elected member on this planning file.”
Yet the move by his office to clarify Mr Varadkar’s comments did little to assuage the outrage in Ireland as opposition parties claimed Mr Varadkar’s actions hark back to the “dark days of planning where political interference ensured that the rich and powerful got what they wanted”.
Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin condemned it as “entirely inappropriate” for Mr Varadkar to “meddle and intervene” on Mr Trump’s behalf for his own private business interests.
“That Leo Varadkar has made political representations essentially on behalf of the business interests of President Trump is extraordinary,” said Mr Howlin.
“The Taoiseach needs to make clear immediately the nature of these representations,”
Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald expressed concern at Mr Varadkar’s comments, saying: “I am concerned and taken aback by the comments of the Taoiseach. There is a need for An Taoiseach to clarify his actions and the appropriateness of intervention on this planning matter.”
Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said: “This is a shocking admission from the Taoiseach, and 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.
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