Wednesday 19 September 2018

Taoiseach admits he did not contact council over wind farm near Trump's Doonbeg resort - but he did contact Fáilte Ireland

  • Taoiseach moves to clarify nature of his intervention after Trump call
  • He did not contact council - but did email CEO of Fáilte Ireland
  • Move was 'what any tourism minister should do'
  • Full email to Fáilte Ireland released
  • Fáilte Ireland also release statement
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)

Philip Ryan and Jason O'Brien in New York

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has admitted he did not contact Clare County Council on behalf of US President Donald Trump.

However, Mr Varadkar said he did contact Fáilte Ireland about a wind farm development seeking planning permission near Mr Trump’s golf course in Doonbeg.

During a speech on Capitol Hill on Thursday the Taoiseach said he contacted the council after receiving a call from Mr Trump around four years ago when he was Minister for Tourism.

His comments landed him firmly in the firing line at home with Opposition TDs calling on him to clarify the nature of his intervention.

Speaking in New York today he said he has since looked into the actions he took at the time and revealed he contacted the CEO of Fáilte Ireland, Shaun Quinn, via email.

The email, dated February 24 2014, stated that he did not want to get into the "nitty gritty" but said he had committed to asking Fáilte Ireland to review the application to see if the body shared Mr Trump's concern about the impact on tourism and the landscape.

“I’m happy to clarify that. I was telling a humorous anecdote about something that happened four years ago,” Mr Varadkar said

“The humorous part and the joke was that the President was giving me credit and praise for something I didn’t actually do.

“I didn’t have a clear recollection at the time but I have gone back now and checked with my staff and checked the records.

“I didn’t actually contact Clare County Council, either verbally or in writing. I did however contact Fáilte. I did that via email to the CEO of Fáilte.

"Fáilte as you know is Ireland’s tourism agency. It has a statutory remit to look at planning applications and see if they could have a negative impact on tourism.

“They were aware of the development already and did make representations to the council...all entirely within procedure and all entirely above board,” he added.

In a statement released this evening, Failte Ireland explained the timeline of the planning process for the proposed wind farm.

"In 2011, An Bord Pleanála, who were considering an appeal on the development, sought the comments of Fáilte Ireland on the proposed 45 turbine wind farm in Shragh, Co. Clare. On 5th January 2012, Fáilte Ireland made a submission to An Bord Pleanala recommending refusal of the development. The development was subsequently refused planning permission by An Bord Pleanála.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar talks to the media in the Hell's Kitchen district of New York City, the latest stop on his visit to the US. Niall Carson/PA Wire
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar talks to the media in the Hell's Kitchen district of New York City, the latest stop on his visit to the US. Niall Carson/PA Wire

"The developers subsequently submitted a new planning application to Clare County Council in 2014 for a 9 turbine wind farm. Given our previous involvement in this case, we commissioned AOS Planning to undertake a tourism impact assessment report of the proposed development. The report found that the proposed development would likely have a negative impact on the tourism amenity value of the area due to the cumulative impact with other existing wind farms in the area."

They also explained their role in the planning process.

"All of the above actions were taken by Fáilte Ireland entirely in accordance with Fáilte Ireland’s statutory role as a prescribed body in the planning process. At that time, we would have been making submissions to about 25-30 cases per year, with a number of those being wind farms. We took a particular interest in wind farms proposed in scenic areas, in light of the research that we did in 2008 on Visitor Attitudes towards Wind Farms, which informed our submissions."

Mr Varadkar said he told the story at an occasion in which “people were telling stories and anecdotes and telling jokes.”

He said he did not consider the remarks to be a gaffe similar those made by Taoiseach Enda Kenny during his tenure.

“This is politics and I realise there are people in politics  who will make a controversy out of almost any remark," he added.

Mr Varadkar - who was speaking at the site of the new Irish Arts Centre in New York which is due to open in 2020 insisted the story and his clarification had not damaged his reputation as a straight talker.

“I’ll continue to be a straight talker and I’ll continue to be spontaneous and off the cuff on occasion and I think that’s one thing people will expect from me,” he said.

"It may be on occasion that I don’t remember everything that happened four years ago,” he said.

Asked if it was appropriate to intervene on behalf of Mr Trump, the Taoiseach further clarified his position.

“Here’s what happened, a person, a businessman was investing in tourism in Ireland as people do,” he said.

“They invest in attractions, they invest in hotels and That person raised an issue with me and I did what was entirely appropriate and passed on those concerns to the relevant statutory agency and I did so in writing.

“That is what any tourism minister should do.

“An investor raises an issue and you send it on to the relevant authorities and that’s exactly what I did,” he said.

He also said he didn't regret using the word "piss-take" when speaking at the Speakers Lunch when he brought up the story of his encounter with Mr Trump.

"No, I don't think so, I think on both sides of the Atlantic everyone knows what that means - it's certainly not a curse word or anything like that," he said.

Mr Varadkar had said that when he was told he had a call from Mr Trump - while in London - he initially thought it was a "piss-take".

Read in full the email from Leo Varadkar to Fáilte Ireland:

Hi Shaun

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 Failte 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

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