Saturday 19 January 2019

Gene Kerrigan: The favour that Leo did(n't) do for Donald

A seemingly trivial matter can expose a hidden truth, like when nervous Leo went to the White House, writes Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

This Doonbeg thing, it's Irish politics in a nutshell. The ineptitude, the deceit, the two-faced playacting, how the rules are just for the little people...

"Ah, wait a minute, wait a minute... give the man a break."

Give who a break?

"Leo. Sure, didn't he explain all that? He never actually made that phone call. The phone call to put the fix in for Trump. Leo never made that call. He just hinted to Trump that he got Clare County Council to put the fix in. But he didn't actually do anything!"

So, there we have the explanation.

The guy in charge of running the country did nothing wrong. He merely gave a rich guy an impression that he was interfering with a planning process, just to make him feel good.

Sometimes a trivial incident can catch people off-guard, and we see the banal opportunism that underlies how things are done in this great little nation.

There are two chapters to this story: the first, in 2014; and the second, last week.

You may remember, in 2014, Michael Noonan, Minister for Finance, standing like an attentive butler at the bottom of the steps of the Trump jet, at Shannon Airport.

And behind him on the windswept tarmac there were a few lovely girls, the proverbial cailini deasa, in "Irish" costumes, singing to welcome the rich visitor, one of the colleens playing d'harp.

We like to think we're good at sucking up, but Trump wasn't happy. And no amount of fair colleens would fix that.

Trump bought land in Clare, for a hotel and golf course at Doonbeg. Now, some entrepreneur was building a wind farm nearby.

Trump didn't just want control over the land he bought, he wanted a veto over something that was to be built on someone's else's land.

There are procedures for objecting to such projects, but Trump prefers cronyism.

So, he finds out the guy in charge of tourism is called Varadkar, and he gets him on the phone, says he's "concerned".

Varadkar could have explained about the procedures, but that would have involved saying no to a rich man.

Where rich men are involved, the default mode for our right-wing politicians is crawling.

It's known as kiss up, kick down.

With Apple, it's: "Well, sir, how much tax would you like to pay?"

With Donald it's: "Hey, we'll endeavour to do what we can about it, Mr Trump."

So, Trump must have been left with the impression that Varadkar would put the fix in.

But Varadkar didn't ring Clare County Council with Trump's "concerns". Instead, he emailed Failte Ireland, just - y'know - wondering if it "shared" Trump's "concerns".

And Failte Ireland "made observations" to Clare County Council. We don't know whether and to what extent these "observations" were influenced by Varadkar's "concerns" about Trump's "concerns".

Upshot: the wind farm was refused planning permission.

Now, we could spend ages sniffing around but we're not going to find a smoking gun lying in a bunker at Doonbeg golf course.

Trump had a problem; Trump made a call; Varadkar sent an email to Failte; Failte spoke to the council; Trump's problem went away.

Five separate steps, no visible connections. As Mr Varadkar explained, it was all above board.

Irish politics in a nutshell.

You can understand how this looks from Donald's point of view - how he would be delighted to see the guy who took his phone call that time, just before his problem went away.

Chapter 2, last week.

Leo was finally being welcomed to the White House. And you can bet he and the Strategic Spin Unit put in the hours preparing for the visit, nothing to be left to chance. Do this right and it's worth maybe five points in the next poll, and that's what matters.

In The Irish Times, Miriam Lord caught some of the bizarre White House dialogue between Varadkar and Trump. Had Samuel Beckett read Lord's report he would have been envious.

Her piece was the only one that caught and reported a strange remark Trump made in passing about Varadkar: "We actually know each other from another life."

It could mean anything.

Now, I've covered one of those Paddy's-Day-in-DC things, and it's pure show-business. Our guys love hanging out with big-shot Yanks. And the big shots get photos they can use to impress Irish-American voters at the next election.

I've watched the American and Irish politicians pretending to find shamrock interesting.

I've stood bored out of my skull in the East Wing, as the Americans glanced at their watches and prayed for the "entertainment" to end soon.

I'd do it again only if they provided quantities of narcotics sufficient to mentally displace me for the duration.

At the heart of all this is a difficult task for the Taoiseach of the day - and most of them have made a good stab at it. That is, they struggled to maintain some contact with their dignity while cavorting for the big shots.

In the video of his performance, however, Varadkar is undiluted embarrassment.

Pausing to consult his notes, he turned to Trump, and pointing both index fingers at him he said, "I forgot to tell the story, Mr President". His voice implied this would have been a grievous loss to the assembled audience.

We now know that behind the scenes Trump and Varadkar discussed the 2014 matter. Obviously, when preparing for the visit Trump remembered - "Ah, the guy who helped me shaft that wind farm. Good guy, good guy, knows his place".

And Varadkar, for whatever reason, decided to tell his "humorous" story.

My guess is that Varadkar was nervous about the 2014 matter. If Trump blurted something it could become an incident. Better for Varadkar to tell it himself - with a carefully placed remark about how he didn't actually do anything, the wind farm would probably have been turned down anyway.

Varadkar beamed as he told how Trump called him directly. Other people would write, make an arrangement to meet, said Varadkar, but "as we all know, Trump doesn't work like that - he's a very, very direct man, likes to get things done".

You and I, we respect the procedures, but great men who "like to get things done" have procedures of their own.

Varadkar's smile was oozing now: "So, I endeavoured to do what I could do about it."

And planning permission was "declined".

He pointed out it was all about "the beauty of the landscape"; he bowed to Trump: "The president has very kindly given me credit for that." And he stuck in the bit designed to show it was all above board: "It probably would have been declined anyway".

I think that was the "humorous" bit.

Here, we have the essence of Irish politics - the ability to say two different and opposing things at the same time. "I did(n't) do it."

I did it, give me credit; I didn't do it, don't blame me.

If Varadkar said he didn't do it; or if he said he did it, and then made the usual references to jobs and inward investment - which gives you cover in this country for anything short of mass murder - he would have been OK. Instead, we saw him oozing, nervous, clearly out of his depth. He hasn't, as others in his position have, learned the art of fawning over the powerful while winking at the folks back home, who appreciate a well done piece of forelock-tugging.

There is, of course, one political player missing from this farce. And, right on cue, here they come - Fianna Fail declaring themselves shocked, SHOCKED, at the possibility that a politician has interfered with a planning matter.

Irish politics, in a nutshell.

Sunday Independent

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