Harris criticises ‘over-hyped’ criticism of Varadkar wind farm call

Reaction: Howlin says Varadkar may have been exaggerating his role ‘to have tale to tell’

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar says he contacted Clare County Council when he was minister for tourism over a wind farm Donald Trump was opposed to when he bought Doonbeg golf course. Video: Reuters

 

The reaction to the Taoiseach’s comments about contacting a council over a proposed windfarm near Donald Trump’s Doonbeg golf course has been “completely over-hyped and blown out of all proportion”, according to Minister for Health Simon Harris.

Leo Varadkar’s cabinet colleague said it was “not new news” as the Taoiseach had told the story of Mr Trump’s contact before and mentioned it in an interview with Time magazine last year.

In Washington on Thursday Mr Varadkar said he made a phone call to Clare County Council at the request of US president Donald Trump in 2014 in relation to Mr Trump’s objection to the proposed development of a windfarm near his golf club in Doonbeg in Co Clare

“So I endeavoured to do what I could do about it and I rang the county council and inquired about the planning permission and subsequently the planning permission was declined and the wind farm was never built,” he told guests.

His comments have generated a strong political backlash, not least as there appear to be inconsistencies in the account.

Mr Harris said the issue was being “being completely over-hyped by politicians who seem more concerned here about landing political points, than in actually supporting the Taoiseach in what is a very important trade mission that has gone very well for me,” he said.

Mr Harris said the suggestion that the incident amounted to an “intervention” in the planning process by Mr Varadkar was to misuse the word.

Sought a ‘brief’

He played down the contact made to the council saying that the then tourism minister had sought a “brief” about the planning situation around the wind farm.

“If any politician is being honest, I think that’s something that happens very regularly in terms of people seeking an update on an application, particularly one that could have an impact on something like tourism which was the view at the time,” he said. Clare County Council says it has no record of any communications by Mr Varadkar on the issue.

Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin said the Taoiseach’s admission of making such a call was case of “Leo losing the run of himself” and said the issue jarred at every level.

Referring to contradictory versions of the incident now emerging Mr Howlin said Mr Varadkar may have been exaggerating his own involvement so as “to have a tale to tell” at the White House.

“It showed a lack of experience and we have had more than one example of that. Clearly his version of events in his jokey format yesterday does not tally with what his office clarified to be the case last night,” he said.

“His original commentary that he endeavoured to do what he could on foot of the request of a businessman who was investing in Ireland, to involve himself in a process that has rightly been said, planning is a very, very sensitive issue in this country.”

Any politician who wants to have their views taken into account, are required to make a formal submission, which should be on the planning file for everyone to see, he added.

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said the Government’s attempts to explain Mr Varadkar’s intervention in the planning system “don’t add up.”

‘Who is telling the truth?’

“Who is telling the truth about then-minister Varadkar’s intervention in the planning process on behalf of Donald Trump? Do we take the Taoiseach’s word for it, that he intervened personally?” said Mr Ryan.

“Do we accept the excuse this morning that it was an inquiry by one of Mr Varadkar’s officials? Or Clare County Council, who have no record or knowledge of the intervention taking place?

“The story doesn’t add up.”

The Green leader said the “fact that he could not see the intervention was inappropriate is what he has to defend.” Public confidence had been further undermined by the council’s statement.

“What the Minister did was clearly wrong. If Fine Gael could only hear their own defence of the indefensible, it would make them blush,” he said.

Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy TD said that the Taoiseach had “serious questions to answer” and criticised his official response that the call to the council was “normal politics.”

“Trying to pass this off as ‘normal politics’ sounds like a throw-back to another era. We are supposed to have moved on from the days of political meddling in planning, but Mr Varadkar’s behaviour would call that into question,” she said.

“It would be entirely inappropriate for a Government minister to have involved himself in a planning decision of Clare County Council on behalf of a private individual. The Taoiseach must come before the Dáil to give a full and detailed explanation of his actions.”

Meanwhile, Irish environmental group Friends of the Irish Environment, disclosed that Mr Trump called them after he bought the Doonbeg resort in 2014 offering to support their opposition to the wind farm.

Tony Lowes, the group’s director, said that they considered offer, made on an unexpected call to the group from the New York businessman, but “politely refused” any assistance.

“We operate on a shoe string and welcome support, but we felt in this case our independence precluded any involvement,” he said.