Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has corrected his recollection of the help he gave Donald Trump as minister for tourism when the businessman was trying to stop a wind farm being built near his Co Clare golf resort.
Mr Varadkar said that he did not in fact call Clare County Council as he said in a speech in Washington on Thursday but Fáilte Ireland about Mr Trump’s objections to a wind farm next to his Doonbeg golf resort.
Speaking to reporters on Friday, the Taoiseach denied that his much-criticised remarks during the traditional St Patrick’s Day lunch in the US Capitol was a gaffe.
“It is maybe on occasion that I don’t remember everything that happens four years ago,” he said.
He sought to play down the significance of the incident, saying he had since gone back to check with his staff and to check his records to see what exactly happened.
“Here’s what happened: a person, a businessman was investing in tourism in Ireland as people do. They invest in attractions, they invest in hotels and that person raised an issue with me,” he said.
“I did what was entirely appropriate which was to pass on those concerns to the relevant statutory agency and I did so in writing. That is what any tourism minister should do.”
On Friday evening, the Taoiseach’s department released an email from Mr Varadkar to Fáilte Ireland chief executive Shaun Quinn.
Dated February 24th 2014, Mr Varadkar wrote: “I took a call from Donald Trump last Friday. He is concerned about plans to build very large wind farms near Doonbeg.
“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.
“I would appreciate it if you could do so. Leo.”
Earlier, Clare County Council said it has no record of any “brief” or “status update” being sought from Leo Varadkar or his former department about a wind farm opposed by Donald Trump.
The Taoiseach told an audience in Washington that included president Trump that when he was minister for tourism, the billionaire called him to complain about a “problem” he had with a planned wind farm near his Doonbeg golf resort in west Clare and that Mr Varadkar subsequently called the council about it.
Representatives for Mr Varadkar and a member of his party have subsequently and variously said that he sought a “brief” of information on the wind farm from the council and, later, that an official in his office sought a status update on the planning application from the wind farm’s developer, Clare Coastal Wind Power.
The council subsequently refused to provide planning permission to the wind farm in October 2014 and that decision was upheld by An Bord Pleanála in July 2015.
Mr Trump bought the golf resort in February 2014.
Sinn Féin planning spokesman Eoin Ó Broin called on Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy to appoint an independent planning expert to investigate the Taoiseach’s comments on his intervention over the Doonbeg wind farm and to report his findings to the Oireachtas housing committee.
“If the Taoiseach believes that he has done nothing wrong, he should encourage such an intervention,” said Mr Ó Broin.
Mr Varadkar was minister for tourism until July 2014. The New Yorker tweeted “great news from Ireland” when the council refused planning permission.
A Government spokesman insisted the Taoiseach did not seek to intervene in the planning process but called the council to seek a “brief” about the planning application for the wind farm.
Fine Gael Senator Martin Conway, who is based in Co Clare, has subsequently said that, having spoken with council officials and people in Mr Varadkar’s office, Mr Varadkar did not ring the council.
Mr Conway told RTE's Morning Ireland that Mr Varadkar's office made an inquiry "in terms of a status update" and that he "effectively" sought information about the planning application.
A spokesman for Clare County Council said there was no “brief” on the planning application for the wind farm sought from Mr Varadkar or anyone at his department when he was minister for tourism.
“We have no record of any brief sought,” he said.
He said it would be “very unusual” for a department to seek a status update from the council about a planning application. The normal procedure was for the council to direct any queries from a politician or a member of the public about a planning application to the council’s website for that information, he said.
The council said that requests for representations by elected representations on planning applications can be made until the day the decision on the application is made.
“We did not get any representation from an elected member on that planning application,” the council said.
The businessman behind a failed plan to build a wind farm near Donald Trump’s Co Clare golf resort said he was disappointed Mr Varadkar had “interfered” in the planning process.
Michael Clohessy, director of Clare Coastal Wind Power, said his company would be “reviewing this situation” after Mr Varadkar’s comments.
The Co Clare company’s proposal to erect a nine-turbine wind farm about 4km from the golf resort was twice refused planning permission, costing the firm about €500,000.
The Taoiseach said he initially thought the call was “a pisstake by one of my staff members” as he thought a businessman like Mr Trump would write a letter first to set up a meeting.
“But, as we all know, President Trump does work like that. He is a very direct man, likes to get things done,” he said.