WHAT is it about Taoiseach Leo Varadkar when he finds himself abroad in corridors of power? He seems to lose the run of himself and get carried away by such occasions and tends to say things that undermine the gravitas that should be an intrinsic element of his office.
While still very new to the job last summer, the Taoiseach got a bit carried away on his first visit to No 10 Downing Street, having seen the staircase that reminded him of the film Love Actually. While it got plenty of traction on social media, it diverted attention away from his important meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May about Brexit and made our leader seem a bit frivolous.
However, he really landed himself in the proverbial during his visit to Washington last week for the St Patrick’s Day celebrations when, seemingly, trying to curry favour with US President Donald Trump – in whose company he looked distinctly uncomfortable. Granted, it was difficult to get a word in with the motor-mouth American president, but saying things just for the sake of saying them in a public forum is not best practice, especially if it is likely to land one in trouble.
We would have thought that, given his predecessor Enda Kenny’s penchant for telling tall tales, our Taoiseach would have learned from it, especially with all the spin doctors he has in his much-maligned Strategic Communications Unit. However, they cannot control his every utterance.
The unsolicited story the Taoiseach told at Speaker Paul Ryan’s annual lunch at Capitol Hill in Washington, two days ahead of St Patrick’s Day, about how he made representations when he was Minister for Transport, Tourism & Sport on behalf of Donald Trump – who had not yet entered politics – concerning a planning application for a wind farm that the American businessman did not want to see built within sight of his exclusive golf resort at Doonbeg in West Clare.
In Washington last week, spinning such a yarn to ingratiate himself to the colleagues of the now US President might have seemed like a good idea in the moment, but when visiting the power base of the mercurial Trump, which can be awkward, delicate and potentially fraught, every word uttered needs to be carefully measured.
His hosts were probably amused by the Taoiseach’s tale, but it stirred a hornets’ nest back home as the idea of a Minister boasting about doing a turn for a billionaire US businessman did not sit well with a lot of people, most especially the wind farm developer whose application was refused and all the opposition politicians who clamoured for an explanation of what he did and why.
Mr Varadkar subsequently rowed back on some of the details of what he had claimed in his story, including contacting Clare County Council – who had no record of same – about the planning application, saying that he had just contacted Fáilte Ireland to check that they were on the case. As Taoiseach, he should really be sure of his facts before he goes telling tall tales to entertain his American hosts and, even though he denied it, such bravura smacks of being overawed by the occasion.
It was bad enough back in 2014 when The Donald was welcomed to Shannon Airport by Minister for Finance Michael Noonan and local dignitaries, accompanied by a singer, harpist and violinist, on a red carpet at the foot of the steps of his private jet as he arrived to visit his golf resort at Doonbeg. The paddywhackery of it was truly cringe-inducing.
The Taoiseach only added to the lexicon of shameless courting of rich Americans with his anecdote about how Donald Trump thinks he (Varadkar) did the US billionaire a favour concerning the planning application and it has a smack of shoneenism about it that does our leader no favours. It was a pity because it detracted attention from the good things that came of his visit to the States, including his broaching of the possibility of a new EU-US trade deal to diffuse current moves by Trump to impose certain tariffs, securing an acknowledgement from the President of the necessity to resolve the issue of the ‘undocumented’ Irish and, of course, the Taoiseach walking in the New York St Patrick’s Day parade officially accompanied by his partner, Matthew.
Just like the controversy surrounding Enda Kenny’s tall tales, like the one about the Irish Army possibly being needed to guard ATMs at the height of the financial crisis, all the fuss about Leo Varadkar’s Doonbeg story will dissipate in time. However, he needs to learn from it and be more careful about what he says in public in future; be the leader he was elected as and let the entertaining to the professional comedians.