DANIEL MCCONNELL: An utterly avoidable gaffe as Leo lets hubris cloud his judgment

What was he thinking?, asks Daniel McConnell.

Things were going so well.

He had been in the US since last Sunday and was enjoying a successful trip. He had gotten through Texas and Oklahoma unscathed.

Key meetings with Texas governor Gregg Abbott and the Choctaw had gone swimmingly. He made it through a couple of days in Washington without putting too much of a step wrong.

Leo Varadkar with Donald and Melania Trump during the Shamrock Ceremony in the White House this week.
Leo Varadkar with Donald and Melania Trump during the Shamrock Ceremony in the White House this week.

He took some flack for performing a sharp U-turn on Donald Trump’s invite to Ireland. Having said last year he wouldn’t invite him on home soil, our new openly hipster Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said it would be bad manners not to extend an invite to someone who had invited you to their home.

The hard left called the U-turn a disgrace. But, all in all, it was pretty minor stuff and nothing to get overly excited about. Politicians performing U-turns is nothing new.

Varadkar even managed to get through the crucial one-on-one bilateral meeting with Trump in the Oval Office unscathed and things were looking good. Only for it to unravel less than an hour later on Capitol Hill during the Speaker’s Lunch hosted by Paul Ryan, who has roots in Kilkenny.

In a packed room of leading dignitaries, including President Trump, leading republicans and democrats, and lauded members of the Irish American community, Varadkar had nothing short of a car crash.

So, Speaker Ryan spoke first and warmly welcomed ‘Leo’ on his first trip as Taoiseach. His speech was short and unremarkable — a bit like the manky pint of Guinness he presented at his toast. Then the Donald rose to address the gathering. He spoke off the cuff and cracked a few jokes including one on Ireland’s low corporate tax rates.

“Whenever there is a problem, call, we’ll solve it. Except for trade.

“You’ve got those taxes so low, you are a tough one to compete with on the taxes, so well done. Good job,” the US president said.

And, during his speech, Trump referred to his previous interactions with Varadkar before they assumed the two great offices they occupy. “Great guy,” he said.

And then it was Leo’s turn to take to the podium. He spoke warmly of his time spent as an intern for Congressman Jack Quinn of Buffalo, New York, and how he often gave tours of the Capitol Building.

But then came the massive diversion from his prepared script. Perhaps buoyed by the lively and highly receptive response to his first few wisecracks, Leo felt the need to retell the story of how he lobbied on behalf of Trump in relation to his Doonbeg resort.

Eyebrows were first raised by his use of unparliamentary language on being informed the billionaire businessman Donald Trump was on the phone looking to speak to him.

“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,” Varadkar said sheepishly, perhaps realising the use of profanity is a big no-no in conservative America and almost unheard of in such a formal setting.

But he went on to detail how he intervened on Trump’s behalf in opposition to a proposed wind farm near the expansive resort.

“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 told to muted laughter in the room and to hue and cry back home in Ireland.

Leo Varadkar meeting Mike Pence in Washington this week.
Leo Varadkar meeting Mike Pence in Washington this week.

He had not even sat down in his chair when sharp criticism rang in from the Opposition over what they branded “political interference” in the planning process. With due cause given our history, any suggestion of a corruption of the planning process is alarming.

Varadkar had shot himself in the foot and allowed hubris cloud his judgment as to what was appropriate. Just as instantaneous as the indignation was from the likes of Eamon Ryan of the Greens and Brendan Howlin of Labour was the attempt to downplay the controversy by Varadkar’s handlers.

This was a joke, this was not new, he had said this all before, was the argument. And yes, he had mentioned it before. He had spoken about it previously to Time magazine when he became Taoiseach. But, in politics, context is everything.

A new youngish Taoiseach essentially bragging about intervening in a planning process in an unusual way. This was not, according to the Taoiseach, a written submission to be put on file but rather verbal contact which would not be recorded and, therefore, not transparent.

The Taoiseach’s comments drew a sharp response from Clare County Council which insisted there “is no representation by Leo Varadkar, the then minister for tourism and sport, or any elected member on this planning file”.

Then from the Taoiseach’s office came an important admission: He personally did not make the call but someone in his office made the call to inquire about the status of the file.

That was confirmed by Clare senator Martin Conway, who said he had been told by council officials and by officials in Varadkar’s office that he personally did not make the call. Someone in his office made a call to inquire as to the status of the planning process, Conway told Morning Ireland, seeking to downplay the significance of it all.

So, we are back to the situation of our Taoiseach travelling overseas and making up stories. I thought we had seen the back of the Enda Kenny fairytales about the man with two pints or the army protecting ATM machines. Remember, it was a made-up conversation with Katherine Zappone which ultimately saw the end of Kenny last year.

This embarrassing gaffe is not in that league and does not at this stage pose any threat to Varadkar’s position as leader. But it was utterly avoidable and utterly regrettable. And it overshadowed what was, in truth, the big story of the day which was an apparent willingness by Trump to move to accommodate the illegal Irish community living in the US.

The plight of the so-called undocumented (which obviously doesn’t sound as bad as illegal) has remained unresolved for decades, even when Barack Obama was a “great friend” to Ireland.

To be fair, Varadkar is a first-time Taoiseach and the pace and scale of events in Washington can be overwhelming. It also was a high-wire act to try and navigate.

He, as a gay man, was having to stare into the eyes of men like Vice President Mike Pence, who openly espouse hostile views on homosexuality. And he is also having to manage expectations of his own previous tough talking on Trump and it all appears to have gotten the better of him.

It is a shame but, because of one moment of reckless loose talk, Varadkar’s first trip to the US will now be one to forget.


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