Miriam Lord: Tour de Taoiseach hits New York on shaky ground
Smart money would have been on Trump saying something stupid. Instead he teed Leo up
Gate fever had broken out by the time the Tour de Taoiseach hit New York.
This was nothing to do with the end being in sight for the travelling party. It had everything to do with stoking a controversy which might not have been so controversial after all.
But never mind that. It thoroughly enlivened the final leg of Leo Varadkar’s first St Patrick’s week trip to America as Taoiseach.
Or our personal favourite: Pisstakegate.
When the Taoiseach said on numerous occasions over the last eight days that he wants to “double our footprint” around the world, we didn’t expect him to lead by example and start by sticking his own foot in his mouth.
On Thursday, in the space of a few hours, Leo moved from one big gaff (The White House) to another big gaff (Pisstakegate) and caused ructions back home in Ireland in the process. He probably realised he was on shaky ground after he launched into his Big I Am story about his part in having planning permission turned down for a wind farm next to Donald Trump’s golf course in Clare. The Taoiseach said he phoned the council to check the situation after taking a phone call from Trump who was concerned about the impact of the project on his Clare estate.
The punchline to this yarn was that Trump thought that Varadkar, tourism minister at the time, had squared the matter with the council.
“And the president has very kindly given me credit for that although I do think it probably would have been refused anyway.”
That’s very woolly language: “probably refused”. He wasn’t totally disabusing his host of the notion.
And as all the American politicians at the lunch laughed, the visiting Irish journalists were already tipping off their newsdesks about what sounded like a decidedly dodgy phone call on planning from a minister to a local authority. A minister who now happens to be in the top job.
From Thursday night, when the reaction from home began to flood in, the Taoiseach knew he had messed up. On Friday, on the morning after the lunch before, he still couldn’t quite believe the words he came out with on Capitol Hill.
But he was certain of one thing: he had nobody to blame but himself.
A bit jittery
Leo’s brief schmoozical interlude with Donald in the Oval Office had gone very well. Trump in expansive humour, lovin’ everybody and everything Irish and threatening to come to here next year if it might “help” Leo Varadkar’s election campaign.
That offer, if nothing else, must have had an unsettling effect on his guest, who was already a bit jittery to begin with.
Nonetheless, the formal White House element of his day passed without a hitch.
He was so relieved when it finally ended he pointed towards the departing journalists and blurted excitedly to Trump: “That’s the RTÉ camera!”
Trump gave him a blank look and said nothing.
That was the nerves talking, but having negotiated the first hurdle, Leo still had the speaker’s lunch to come. It’s an impressive place, Capitol Hill, with its marbled halls and soaring pillars and bronze statuary. It could give a man notions and cause him to lose the run of himself a bit.
The Taoiseach, as guest of honour, spoke after the president. On past form, the smart money would have been on Trump saying something stupid. This time he kept his nose clean but teed up somebody else to put their foot in it. Leo duly obliged.
He was going to visit the Stonewall monument in Greenwich Village on Friday evening – cradle of the gay rights movement in America. Until then, the only stonewalling came from the Taoiseach and his team and questions poured in about that phonecall to Clare County Council four years ago.
Finally, as he was on his way in to the site of a new Irish Arts Centre in the city and announced $2.5 million funding from the Irish Government for it, he addressed the issues.
“I won’t be telling any jokes this morning,” he began. “I’m happy to clarify that I was telling a humorous anecdote about something that happened 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 that I didn’t actually do.”
When you’re explaining why a joke is funny, you’ve failed.
“Well lookit, it was that sort of occasion when people were telling stories and anecdotes and telling jokes and exchanging wit.”
At least that was funny.
But did he regret telling the anecdote? Will you stop telling anecdotes? Why did you make up the thing about the call to the council? Did he lose the run of himself?
Guilty of all, yer honour, said the Taoiseach, who also said at the luncheon that when he got news of the call from Trump he thought it was a “pisstake” from one of his staff.
“Do you regret using the language ‘pisstake’?” he was asked.
“No, I don’t think so... it’s certainly not a curses word or anything else,” said the Taoiseach, who we were beginning to take pity on at this stage.
And the thing is, insisted Leo outside on a freezing cold pavement in New York, he never did ring the council. He sent an email to the head of Fáilte Ireland in his capacity as tourism minister. His office released said email.
All very fraught.
And to cap it all, he missed the big Abba singsong which went on till the early hours on Thursday night in the ambassadors’ residence. We hear the DUP boys, including Edwin Poots, were in fine voice.
Leo says he’ll be better next year, if he gets the chance.
He’ll do his best to keep his mouth shut. Probably without success.
And he wudda gotten away with it too this year, if it hadn’t been for those pesky turbines.