Monday 23 April 2018

'There was no call from Leo' - Fine Gael Senator denies Varadkar 'influenced' Doonbeg planning process

US President Donald Trump, his wife Melania and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (left) attend the annual shamrock presentation ceremony at the White House in Washington DC, USA. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire
US President Donald Trump, his wife Melania and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (left) attend the annual shamrock presentation ceremony at the White House in Washington DC, USA. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Kathy Armstrong and Philip Ryan

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar "did nothing inappropriate" and "did not influence" the planning application of a wind farm after he was contacted by Donald Trump, a Fine Gael Senator has claimed.

Mr Varadkar came under fire when he revealed at a St Patrick's Day lunch in Washington yesterday that he was contacted by Trump in 2014 when he was Transport Minister about a “problem” with plans to build a massive wind turbine project near Mr Trump’s luxury Doonbeg Golf Resort in Co Clare.

Mr Varadkar told guests that he “endeavoured to do” what he could, contacted Clare County Council and enquired about the planning permission.

“And subsequently the planning permission was declined and the wind farm was never built – thus the landscape being preserved – and the president has very kindly given me credit for that, although I do think it probably would have been refused anyway,” he said.

In 2015, An Bord Pleanála refused planning permission to Clare Coastal Wind Power Ltd’s plans to erect a nine-turbine wind farm within sight of the resort due to the impact it would have on local freshwater pearl mussels. Mr Trump’s objection over the “detrimental impact on the viability” of his resort was among 43 objections lodged.

Following the Taoiseach's controversial marks, Senator Martin Conway has claimed he did not act "inappropriately".

Speaking on Newstalk Breakfast today, he said: "There was no representation from the Taoiseach from when he was a minister at the time on the planning frame, there is no log of any call from the Taoiseach to Clare County Council and no representative from Clare County Council has any recollection of any call from Leo Varadkar on this matter.

"I think it's fairly clear there was no intervention that was inappropriate."

He continued to say: "His office contacted Clare County Council to check the status of a planning file, which politicians do on a regular basis if someone contacts their office enquiring about a planning application, where it's at, what the story is with it, we regularly make phone calls with local authorities about planning to check the status.

"I am absolutely categorically sure there was no call from Leo Varadkar, I have spoken to people from Clare County Council and from Leo Varadkar's office."

Fianna Fail TD Niall Collins refuted Senator Conway's comments and claimed Taoiseach Varadkar did Trump's "bidding."

Deputy Collins said on Newstalk Breakfast: "The key question is what influence, if any, did he bring on Clare County Council?

"You have to remember this is one of the richest businessmen in the world at the time contacting an Irish Government minister, who then goes away and does the bidding for the rich businessman to the planning authority.

"There are formal structures in the Irish planning system for people to make observations or objections to planning applications.

"I think it's highly inappropriate that Leo Varadkar, as a then Minister for Tourism, picked up the phone on behalf of Donald Trump and made an intervention or inquiry, we don't know what and that's what we need to get to.

"Did Leo Varadkar speak to influence the course  of a planning application?

"Any planning application can be looked up online on local authority websites."

Deputy Collins also claimed that the Taoiseach has been "caught out."

U.S. President Donald Trump and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the White House
U.S. President Donald Trump and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the White House

"Leo needs to come clean, he has been caught out on two fronts.

"He was found to have a popular opposition to Donald Trump when he took over as president and now he needs to explain what was the nature of his intervention into the planning of a wind farm," he said.

In response to Mr Collins' comments, Mr Conway said that he is confident Mr Varadkar did not do anything wrong.

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)

He said: "That is correct (you can check the status online), when my office was contacted about a planning frame I would always  make a call just for clarity...

"I've been absolutely assured that it wasn't from Leo Varadkar.

"I think it's very clear that Leo has done nothing inappropriate in this case, I think it's quite clear that an inquiry came in and was processed through his his office and he had no part in influencing or creating any outcome into the planning decision made."

In 2015, An Bord Pleanála refused planning permission to Clare Coastal Wind Power Ltd’s plans to erect a nine-turbine wind farm within sight of the resort due to the impact it would have on local freshwater pearl mussels. Mr Trump’s objection over the “detrimental impact on the viability” of his resort was among 43 objections lodged.

However, Clare Coastal Wind Power Ltd director Michael Clohessy said the company was now “reviewing the situation”.

“We at Clare Coastal Wind Power Ltd 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.

“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,” he said.

Mr Varadkar’s officials tried to play down the controversy.

“As tourism minister, 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.

“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,” a spokesman said.

Clare County Council said there is no official record of Mr Varadkar’s call.

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