Belfast Telegraph

Leo Varadkar and Mike Pence hold private meeting after media barred

The encounter took place amid controversy over an Irish golf course owned by President Donald Trump.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has met Vice President Mike Pence in a behind-closed-doors encounter at his residence in Washington.

In a break with protocol, Mr Pence’s officials barred media from the traditional St Patrick’s event at his Naval Observatory residence in the US capital.

The move came after Mr Varadkar, Ireland’s first openly gay leader, stated he was going to raise the issue of LGBT rights with the socially conservative vice president who has faced criticism for his stance on the issue.

Media were only permitted to capture the arrival of the Taoiseach on Friday morning. As the politicians exchanged greetings, Mr Pence ignored questions from reporters as to why the engagement was private.

The issue of LGBT rights was not raised by the Taoiseach during the formalities at the breakfast event on Friday.

However, a source said the men had a “tete a tete” on the topic on Thursday, when Mr Varadkar met Mr Pence at the White House.

It is understood Mr Pence invited Mr Varadkar and his partner Matthew Barrett both to visit his house in the future.

On Friday, Mr Pence also confirmed he and his family would visit Ireland during his time as vice president. President Donald Trump has already signalled he will visit the country as well.

Mr Pence told invited guest at the St Patrick’s event that the relationship between Ireland and the United States has “never been stronger and it’s only getting better”.

“And I can attest to the strong and substantive discussions that we had yesterday and that will continue,” he said.

“The Taoiseach invited our family to come to Ireland in my official capacity, and so I’d like to announce to all of you – the Pences will be travelling to Ireland in the coming years. I promise you that. We will accept that wonderful invitation.”

During his speech inside his residence on Friday, Mr Varadkar thanked Mr Pence for the warmth of his hospitality.

The Taoiseach also raised the Vice-President’s Irish heritage, trade between the two countries, and how important US support was to the Good Friday Agreement.

“That Agreement has stood the test of time,” he said.

“There have been bumps in the road, some serious, but the United States has always been by our side.“

On Thursday, Mr Varadkar expressed disappointment at the media ban.

He said he would have preferred if the cameras were allowed in to document their comments, but the Taoiseach added: “It allows us maybe to have a frank conversation that’s easier to have without the media present.”

Friday morning’s encounter took place amid a controversy over an Irish golf course owned by Mr Trump.

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Taoiseach visits United States of America

The row centres on an intervention the Taoiseach made on a planning decision linked to Mr Trump’s Co Clare course at Doonbeg.

The furore flared when Mr Varadkar, in an unscripted anecdote during a St Patrick’s lunch on Capitol Hill on Thursday, outlined details of a phone call he received from the high-profile businessman four years ago.

Mr Trump told Mr Varadkar, then tourism minister, he was unhappy about a planned wind farm in view of the course.

With the president looking on, Mr Varadkar told Speaker Paul Ryan’s lunch event that upon taking the call he contacted the local county council and “endeavoured to do what I could do about it”.

The planning permission was later declined, he added.

“I do think it probably would have been refused anyway but I am very happy to take credit for it if the president is going to offer it to me,” said the Taoiseach.

The Fine Gael leader’s remarks prompted a wave of criticism from opposition parties back in Ireland, with rival politicians demanding urgent clarity on the extent of Mr Varadkar’s intervention.

Micheal Martin, the leader of main opposition party Fianna Fail, tweeted: “Taoiseach needs to be more transparent in relation to his intervention with Clare County Council on behalf of President Trump regarding a planning application for a wind farm.

“Who did he ring? What was the nature of the intervention?”

The picture was further clouded when Clare County Council issued a statement on Thursday night saying it had no record of a representation made by the then tourism minister.

Mr Varadkar’s spokesman has moved to clarify his remarks, insisting he did not act inappropriately and had only enquired about the application.

Party colleagues have also said Mr Varadkar did not personally make the call to the council, rather someone from his office.

The company behind the wind farm application has expressed concern about the Taoiseach’s comments in Washington and has pledged to “review” its position.

Michael Clohessy, director of Clare Coastal Wind Power, said 500,000 euro had been spent on the application.

He told RTE the issue was not something to be joked about in a speech, saying he and his colleagues had “sweated blood” trying to get the project off the ground.

“It’s nothing to be laughed or joked about I can assure you,” he said.

He added: “If there has been an intervention by a minister, a tourism minister at the time, on behalf of Mr Donald Trump then we question what has happened within the planning process.

“This is supposed to be a clear planning process where we can see what happens but I am not so sure any more that that is the case.”

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