Sunday 22 July 2018

'Extraordinary' - Varadkar under fire after revealing details of intervention over Doonbeg wind farm proposal

  • Varadkar recounts first Trump conversation - which was about Doonbeg - at Speaker's Lunch
  • As then-Sports Minister Varadkar made call to Clare County Council about planning application
  • Taoiseach says application 'probably have been declined anyway'
  • Opposition call for detailed explanation
  • Clare County Council say 'no representation by Leo Varadkar' on planning file
Doonbeg Lodge, with Donald Trump (inset) and Leo Varadkar. Composite Image (Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images/Niall Carson)
Doonbeg Lodge, with Donald Trump (inset) and Leo Varadkar. Composite Image (Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images/Niall Carson)
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar makes a speech during the Speaker's Lunch at Capitol Hill in Washington DC. Niall Carson/PA Wire
Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar during the Speaker's Lunch at Capitol Hill in Washington DC, USA. Niall Carson/PA Wire
US President Donald Trump and Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar during the Speaker's Lunch at Capitol Hill in Washington DC, USA Niall Carson/PA Wire

Philip Ryan in Washington DC and Kevin Doyle

TAOISEACH Leo Varadkar is under increasing pressure to explain the details of a call he made on behalf of Donald Trump to a local authority over a proposal to build a wind farm near the businessman's golf course in Doonbeg, Co Clare.

Speaking on Capitol Hill in Washington, Mr Varadkar recounted how Mr Trump personally called his office four years ago to ask for his assistance.

Mr Varadkar said he initially thought the call was a "piss-take" when his assistant told him Mr Trump was on the phone.

At the time, Mr Varadkar was the Minister for Transport, Sport and Tourism.

The businessman told him he was concerned that a wind farm would take away from Doonbeg's landscape and affect his golf business.

Speaking at a St Patrick’s Day lunch, Mr Varadkar said he “endeavoured to do" what he could and contacted Clare County Council after the call.

Mr Varadkar said the council ultimately turned down the planning application for the wind farm.

"The president has very kindly given me credit for that but it would probably have been declined anyway," Mr Varadkar said.

Mr Varadkar’s comments landed him firmly in the firing line of Opposition parties back home, who called for a detailed explanation of his actions.

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan described it as a “shocking admission” that “harks back to the very dark days in the Irish planning system”.

He said there was “no doubt” the Taoiseach “exercised undue influence and undermined due process with his intervention”.

“It is a shocking error of judgement. Clare County Council now need to outline who the Minister contacted and whether there is a record of what was said,” he said.

Fianna Fáil spokesperson on Housing, Planning and Local Government, Barry Cowen, called on the Fine Gael leader to clarify the details of the intervention.

"I was amazed to hear today that the Taoiseach made representations on behalf of Mr Donald Trump on a planning matter about wind turbines.  What is even more bewildering is that it is only coming to light now when he is actually visiting him in the White House," he said.

“Mr Varadkar needs to give a full account of this issue without delay.”

Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin described the Taoiseach’s statement as “extraordinary”.

U.S. President Donald Trump welcomes Ireland's Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Leo Varadkar in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., March 15, 2018. Reuters: Kevin Lamarque
U.S. President Donald Trump welcomes Ireland's Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Leo Varadkar in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., March 15, 2018. Reuters: Kevin Lamarque
US President Donald Trump as he meets and Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar for talks in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, USA. Niall Carson/PA Wire

"The Taoiseach needs to make clear immediately the nature of these representations and if President Trump or a member of his family asked the Taoiseach to make them on his behalf,” he said.

“For the Taoiseach to be seen to meddle and intervene on planning processes at Doonbeg is entirely inappropriate."

Sinn Féin’s Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire characterised the Taoiseach’s comments as an attempt to “brag” about his influence, while Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy described it as an “apparently folksy tale”.

In a statement, Michael Clohessy, director of Clare Coastal Wind Power ltd - who submitted the proposal for the plan - said the company are "disappointed" at the statement made by the Taoiseach today.

"We are disappointed at the admission by an Taoiseach that he interfered in the planning process regarding the planning application for our proposed wind farm in west Clare," he said.

"We at all times acted with integrity and in good faith but it now appears that we were not on a level playing field. We will be reviewing this situation over the coming days"

A spokesman for Mr Varadkar later moved to clarify the Taoiseach's remarks, insisting there was nothing inappropriate about what he had done.

"As Minister for Tourism, Leo Varadkar received a call from Donald Trump regarding a wind farm proposal near Doonbeg, which is a significant tourism asset on the west coast," he said.

"It's normal for ministers to seek information on planning applications when issues are raised by citizens, businesses or investors.

"This matter has been mentioned publicly on many occasions by the Taoiseach. It was not a court case or judicial matter."

In an interview with Time Magazine last summer, Mr Varadkar referred to the planning matter.

Asked about his conversations with President Trump, Mr Varadkar told Time: "We have actually spoken twice. The first time was many years ago, on a different matter. It was a small thing. When he bought the [Doonbeg] golf course in County Clare, I was Minister for Tourism at the time and he had a planning issue which we were able to resolve. It was resolved by the county council rather than by me but it was resolved."

Two proposals for wind farms at Doonbeg have been turned down in recent years.

In 2015 An Bord Pleanála refused planning permission to Clare Coastal Wind Power Ltd to erect a nine-turbine wind farm within sight of Mr Trump's Doonbeg Golf Resort on Co Clare's Atlantic coast, ending a four year battle.

In that instance the board turned down the plans due to the impact it would have on freshwater pearl mussel in the area.

In the inspector's report the impact the farm would have on the views from the golf course were listed as one of the reasons for recommending the permission be turned down.

Fears of a potential flood risk was also cited.

The most recently planned 413ft-high wind farm was to be located only 4km from the resort and, in the objection, consultants employed by the Trump golf club claimed that the wind farm "will have a detrimental impact on the viability of the Doonbeg Golf Resort".

Some 42 objections were lodged against the plan.

In a statement this evening, Clare County Council said: "The Planning Application was received on 15th August 2014.  All representations, objections and observations made in relation to this and all other planning applications are available to view on the planning file and the Clare County Council website.

"There is no representation by Leo Varadkar, the then Minister for Tourism and Sport, or any Elected Member on this planning file. The decision on 8th October 2014 by Clare County Council to refuse this planning application was subsequently appealed to An Bord Pleanála. Following consideration of the appeal, An Bord Pleanála upheld the decision by Clare County Council and refused permission for the proposed development."

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