park-ing mad | 

Helen McEntee ‘pushed’ for the reopening of Tayto Park during lockdown, letters show

Justice Minister appealed to Taoiseach's department on behalf of the Meath attraction's owner

Helen McEntee and Mr Tayto

Philip Ryan

Justice Minister Helen McEntee made representations on behalf of Tayto Park owner Ray Coyle when the attraction was seeking to re-open as the third wave of Covid-19 struck the country.

The Meath TD contacted the Taoiseach’s department, highlighting Mr Coyle’s case for being allowed to reopen his amusement park in December 2020 when the Government eased restrictions before Christmas.

Tayto Park, in Ashbourne, Co Meath, subsequently did reopen in the weeks before Christmas but was forced to close later in the month when restrictions were reimposed due to what would become the worst wave of the virus.

Meanwhile, in April 2021, Ms McEntee said she was “pushing” to ensure Tayto Park could reopen as “early as possible” as the country reopened for the second time.

The relationship between Ms McEntee and Mr Coyle came under the spotlight when it emerged he donated €4,200 to her election campaign through three separate companies he owns.

The minister was forced to hand back the majority of the money as it breached political funding laws. She said she has not received any other donations from Mr Coyle, even though he attended an event organised by her local constituency organisation from which she received €5,000.

Documents released under Freedom of Information show Mr Coyle wrote to the minister on November 4, 2020 as the Government considered easing restrictions before Christmas.

He wanted to meet the minister to discuss allowing him to reopen his park when restrictions were less severe.

“We are unable to open the park when Level 3, 4 or 5 restrictions are in place,” he said.

“While we accept the work should close under the current Level 5 restrictions, we believe the park can operate safely under Level 3 restrictions and below.”

He said the park operated safely during the summer months when restrictions were eased and he was not aware of any Covid infections among his employees or guests. He also noted Dublin Zoo and other outdoor parks could open during Level 3 restrictions.

“We would like the opportunity to show that like them we too can operate safely,” he added.

Ms McEntee forwarded the correspondence to Department of the Taoiseach secretary-general Liz Canavan, who was centrally involved in drafting Covid regulations.

“I’m not sure if they have contacted you directly yet, but obviously you know them well and what they have put in place previously. Let me know if you require anything further,” the minister added.

On November 23, Mr Coyle’s son Charles, who is Tayto Park’s general manager, wrote to the minister, saying the “most beneficial” thing the Government could do for them would be to allow them to reopen under Level 3 restrictions.

The park reopened on December 5 with a limited number of attractions avail-able to people attending before Christmas.

The following year, on April 6, Charles Coyle wrote to Ms McEntee, telling her the business intended to open the zoo section of the park before the end of the month.

He noted the government guidelines said amusement parks could not open in April, but rules surrounding museums, galleries and other cultural attractions would be reviewed before May 4.

“I assume that we are included in this bracket as a cultural attraction? Your feedback on this would be very helpful in allowing us to plan for the season,” he said.

A follow-up email was sent on April 26, asking again if the park was included in the same bracket as cultural attractions.

Ms McEntee responded: “Yes, I’m pushing to make sure you’re included as early as possible. We’ll have a meeting Wed or Thurs .”

In February, Ray Coyle wrote to the minister to tell her he planned to end his association with Tayto Snacks and invest €30m in the park.

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