Varadkar’s email to Fáilte Ireland shows ‘bad judgment’

Sinn Féin and Green Party criticise Taoiseach’s intervention over Doonbeg wind farm

Speaking in New York, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar defends conveying Donald Trump’s concerns about Doonbeg to Fáilte Ireland as “entirely within procedure”. Video: Suzanne Lynch

 

Opposition politicians have criticised Taoiseach Leo Varadkar for showing poor judgment in passing on Donald Trump’s concerns about a proposed wind farm near his Doonbeg golf resort to Fáilte Ireland.

Mr Varadkar’s admitted on Friday night that as minister for tourism in 2014 he conveyed Mr Trump’s objections about a proposed wind farm to the State tourism agency and asked it to look into the matter.

Sinn Féin and the Green Party on Saturday questioned why he had intervened on behalf of the businessman.

Email sent by Leo Varadkar, then minister for tourism and sport, to Fáilte Ireland chief executive Shaun Quinn on February 24th 2014
Email sent by Leo Varadkar, then minister for tourism and sport, to Fáilte Ireland chief executive Shaun Quinn on February 24th 2014

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said that Mr Varadkar or his advisers should have known that Mr Trump had been engaged in a long-running dispute with Scottish planners and politicians to stop a wind farm near his golf course in Aberdeen at the time of the contact.

“This was a very high profile person who was at war with renewable energy on this very issue and for the then minister, immediately on the back of a phone call to write to one of his agencies, in effect representing Trump, is taking sides in a way that I think is bad judgment,” said Mr Ryan.

Speaking in New York on Friday night, Mr Varadkar defended his actions saying that it was “entirely above board” and that it was “what any tourism minister should do” if an investor raised an issue.

Mr Varadkar’s intervention surfaced again on Thursday at the annual St Patrick’s Day luncheon in the US Capitol in Washington when the Taoiseach referred to it in his remarks to guests, including the US president.

He erroneously said he contacted Clare County Council about the wind farm. On Friday he corrected the record, telling reporters that, after checking, he found he had in fact contacted Fáilte Ireland, not the council.

The Taoiseach’s office later released an email Mr Varadkar sent to Fáilte Ireland’s then chief executive Shaun Quinn in February 2014 after he received the call from Mr Trump.

He asked the agency to review the planning application or development plan for Clare to consider Mr Trump’s concerns about the impact of the proposed nine-turbine wind farm on the landscape and tourism.

“I don’t want to get into the nitty gritty of it but I did commit to asking Fáilte to review the planning applications or development plan for Clare as appropriate with a view to making observations if the agency shared his concerns about the impact on landscapes and tourism,” Mr Varadkar wrote.

He denied that the anecdote about Mr Trump’s contact was a gaffe. He played it down as being “humorous” because the US president praised him for something he “did not actually do”: stopping the wind farm.

Mr Ryan questioned Mr Varadkar’s attempt at humour. The Taoiseach’s attempt to “ingratiate himself with Mr Trump right up to this week is what sits so uneasily in the public’s mind,” he said.

“If it was a joke – ‘Donald Trump thinks that I did him a favour here, but I didn’t’ – well you did, so therefore where is the joke?” he said.

Surprise

Sinn Féin’s planning spokesman Eoin Ó Broin said that the Taoiseach’s clarification on Friday night “raises more questions than it answers”.

He expressed surprise that Mr Varadkar “couldn’t tell the difference between contacting the council and Fáilte Ireland, particularly on a high-profile case that he has spoken about twice in the public arena”.

The Sinn Féin TD questioned whether a member of the public who rang Mr Varadkar up about a wind farm would have got through to the minister and had him make a representation on their behalf to Fáilte Ireland.

“Given how toxic our planning history is and the toxic relationship between politicians and the planning process, why would the Taoiseach think it appropriate to talk lightly about wielding influence for a businessman and doing what he could on a planning matter?” said Mr Ó Broin.

“It shows a clear lack of judgment. It is not like this is an off-the-cuff story; he had told this story before publicly.”

He also questioned whether Fáilte Ireland would have made a planning submission to Clare County Council had the minister not contacted them.

“Obviously the minister and Fáilte Ireland are within their rights to make a submission, would they have done so had there not been a phone call from Trump?” he said.

Fianna Fáil TD Barry Cowen was more reassured by Mr Varadkar’s clarifying remarks. He said that he doubted that the Taoiseach’s intervention with Fáilte Ireland on Mr Trump’s behalf “skewed this in a certain direction”.

“I would hope that it would put the issue to bed and put this unfortunate effort at humour, which backfired greatly, behind him,” said Mr Cowen.

“Maybe he was overawed by the occasion and the surroundings but hopefully he will learn from his mistakes.”