Fine Gael faces calls to abandon Noone after she apologises for saying Taoiseach is autistic

On Dáil ticket: Senator Catherine Noone with Leo Varadkar in 2016 before he became Taoiseach. Photo:

Hugh O'Connell

Fine Gael was last night facing calls to abandon the Dáil campaign of Senator Catherine Noone after she described the Taoiseach as "autistic".

Ms Noone, a Fine Gael candidate in the Dublin Bay North constituency, said she was "truly sorry" and withdrew remarks made about Leo Varadkar to a journalist from 'The Times' website while she was canvassing last week.

"He's autistic like, he's on the spectrum, there's no doubt about it. He's uncomfortable socially and he doesn't always get the inbetween bits," she said.

'The Times' reported that Ms Noone subsequently denied using the word "autistic" and then said she did not mean it literally. She gave examples of potentially offensive words that could be used out of context, including "special" and "n***er". She then clarified that she would never use the n-word, and said it was a bad example.

In a statement issued through the Fine Gael press office yesterday, Ms Noone apologised "unequivocally" and withdrew all of her remarks, describing them as "completely unacceptable".

She added: "My choice of language was inexcusable and wrong. I am truly sorry."

On the campaign trail in Galway, Mr Varadkar said Ms Noone's apology and withdrawal of her remarks was "good enough for me".

But Fine Gael figures at all levels of the party were furious with Ms Noone, whose comments also angered autism advocacy groups.

A senior party figure said she had "caused an awful lot of upset" and the party's election campaign had been overshadowed by the controversy.

Fine Gael Senator James Reilly, whose son Jamie was diagnosed with autism, said: "It was ill-informed, unwise and I am very glad she has withdrawn it. As a parent of a child with autism who has nothing but empathy, I am deeply upset by it."

Disabilities Minister and outgoing Independent Alliance TD Finian McGrath suggested Fine Gael should abandon her candidacy.

"If she was an Independent candidate, I wouldn't be backing her. If I was in Fine Gael, I wouldn't be backing her," Mr McGrath told the Irish Independent.

"I think they should seriously look at her candidacy for the Seanad elections. I am very unhappy about the comments.

"I would be concerned that any person involved in public life would be allowed to express views like that."

Earlier, Health Minister Simon Harris, whose brother Adam is an autism awareness campaigner, tweeted: "Autism should never be used as a slur or a negative.

"One in 65 people can be on the autistic spectrum - including someone I know and love dearly.

"As a society, we need to become much more aware in relation to autism and not use casual stereotypes."

However, a senior party source said last night that, as it stood, it was unlikely that Fine Gael would suspend or withdraw support from Ms Noone's campaign, despite some candidates privately calling for this to happen.

"The key thing is that she is now on the ballot paper and as such will be a candidate for Fine Gael," the source said.

As Fine Gael candidates reported that the matter was being raised by voters on the doorstep, Ms Noone held talks with senior party figures yesterday, including director of elections Paschal Donohoe.

Her election to the Dáil in five-seat Dublin Bay North was widely viewed as unlikely prior to the remarks about Mr Varadkar being made.

However, Fine Gael has in recent days distributed thousands of letters across the constituency in which the sitting TD, Communications Minister Richard Bruton, urges voters to give their number one preference to Ms Noone.

"To ensure we win two seats, I am asking anyone who is inclined to vote for Fine Gael to vote Senator Catherine Noone - No 1, Richard Bruton TD - No. 2.

"This will gives us the best possible chance of delivering a strong and dynamic Fine Gael team to represent the people of Dublin Bay North. Two seats in this constituency will bolster our chances of returning to government for a record third time," Mr Bruton states.

No decision has been made on whether Ms Noone, a two-term senator, will be backed by Fine Gael for another Seanad bid. Two Fine Gael senators privately expressed doubts about her future.

Ms Noone did not respond to calls.