Taoiseach Leo Varadkar caused quite a stir last week when he wrongly implicated Clare County Council during his telling of an unseemly story to President Donald Trump during a lunch at the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. as part of his St Patrick’s Day visit to the United States.
Earlier in the week, Cllr Gabriel Keating had joked with Clare County Council’s CEO about going to see Donald Trump. Little did Pat Dowling know at the time just how much controversy Trump would cause for his organisation in the coming days!
Nobody knows what came over Leo Varadkar when he chose to speak with such fawning servility about how he came to personally intervene in the planning process on behalf of Mr Trump.
Recalling that he at first thought it was a “piss-take” when a member of staff informed him of the call from Donald Trump, Mr Varadkar went on to regale his audience with a story about ringing Clare County Council to inquire about a planning application for a wind farm which Trump feared would negatively impact on his Doonbeg golf resort.
According to the Taoiseach, “I endeavoured to do what I could about it. I rang the county council and inquired about the planning permission and subsequently, the planning permission was declined and the wind farm was never built.”
He added, “The President has very kindly given me credit for that, although I do think it would probably have been refused anyway, I’m very happy to take credit for it if the President is going to offer it to me.”
People were surprised that this was the same Leo Varadkar who had once suggested that Trump was racist and had “a very misogynistic attitude to women.”
Given that this show of patronage could also be interpreted as an abuse of process, the Taoiseach’s storytelling rang alarms bells back in Ireland.
Despite the fact that their CEO was on official business in the US, the staff at Clare County Council went to work diligently checking their records and found that Mr Varadkar had made no such contact.
Leo Varadkar later clarified that he had mistakenly implicated Clare County Council when, in fact, he had actually contacted the former chief executive of Fáilte Ireland to review the planning application “with a view to making observations if the agency shared (Donald Trump’s) concerns about the impact on landscapes and tourism.”
Subsequently, Fáilte Ireland did indeed make a submission to An Bord Pleanála to recommend that the proposed Doonbeg windfarm be refused.
Clare County Council had become embroiled in a controversy, not of its making and had been wrongly portrayed in the public eye by the national and world media. At the very least the Taoiseach owes Clare County Council a public apology for his mistake.
Ironically, in the same week that the Taoiseach acknowledged his role on behalf of Donald Trump’s business interests, county councillors were issued with a warning against interfering in planning applications.
A circular to local authority chief executives from Terry Sheridan, principal officer at the Dept. of Housing, Planning and Local Government, stated that Minister Eoghan Murphy had advised that councillors are increasingly discussing planning applications, prior to decisions being made.
The letter stated; “A planning authority is required to consider a planning application in accordance with the open, transparent and verifiable written process set down in the planning legislation and, when making its decision, is restricted to considering the proper planning and sustainable development of the area concerned.”
Furthermore, it states that discussing the merits of individual planning applications “does not form part of the statutory process… and should not be used by elected members advocate that a particular decision is made on an individual application.
“Such a practice could be viewed as an attempt to undermine due process and exert undue influence on the planning authority and/or make a decision that would not be in the interests of the proper planning and sustainable development of the area concerned.”
It does seem like a double standard when the Taoiseach can openly boast about meddling on behalf of Donald Trump’s private business interests in Doonbeg, while councillors are effectively being served with a gagging order.