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Phil Hogan in interview with Sean O'Rourke

Phil Hogan ‘paid very high price politically’ for Golfgate controversy – Varadkar

Hogan described Fine Gael as being wrong to go into government following the 2020 General Election.

LAST UPDATE | 21 Dec 2022

TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR has said Phil Hogan had to pay a high political price over the Golfgate controversy.

The former EU Commissioner said that he is still “annoyed about what happened” during the Golfgate controversy, as he feels political leadership in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil followed a “populist wave of indignation” instead. 

Hogan resigned from the trade commissioner role in August 2020 after attending the dinner as revelations about his movements during severe pandemic restrictions emerged.

The resignation followed a demand from Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to account for his time in Ireland around the society event.

In a new interview, Hogan told RTÉ he was “a bit sloppy on guidelines, but I didn’t break any rule, or any law” during the coronavirus pandemic, and believes there was “no doubt” some Irish political figures were looking to replace him in the EU job, which he resigned from as the controversy grew in the summer of 2020.

The interview with broadcaster Sean O’Rourke, who also attended the dinner in Clifden, Co Galway, also heard how Hogan believes Fine Gael shouldn’t have gone into Government in the last election as they were “rejected by the people” following the “lowest votes since 1948 at 20%” of the turnout.

He also blasted party leader Leo Varadkar for “abandoning” some of his key messages after he first became taoiseach in 2017.

‘Still annoyed’

“I was annoyed at the time and still am annoyed about what happened at the time,” Hogan said about Golfgate.

“I expected a process where I could get a chance to explain myself, but they (Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar) went on this populist wave of indignation about what was after happening on that occasion without actually analysing anything, the conversations I had, meetings with the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste, were leaked to the media.”

Charges against organisers of the Oireachtas Golf Society dinner were dismissed by Judge Mary Fahy in Galway District Court last February. 

Hogan said he and the leaders discussed “how we could explain what had happened”, but they soon “effectively” called for his resignation, “or to consider my position as they put it”. 

He claimed: “They were feeding the information through the Government system to the President of the Commission as if what they were saying was actually fact. We subsequently see from a recent court case; it turned out to be wrong. They certainly went on a campaign in my view.”

In the podcast, when O’Rourke questions whether Hogan had a sense “that one of them or somebody close to them, senior figure in the Government of the day had their eye on replacing you”, he said there was “no doubt about that”.

“There were several figures that were looking at the possibility of being Commissioner but at the end of the day they have now been proven to be completely wrong in their assessment.

“They started out saying I broke rules, and broke laws. I was a bit sloppy on guidelines, but I didn’t break any rule, or any law and it took a court case in Galway in February 2022 to actually show everybody what actually had happened on how wrong the Government and the media were.”

Speaking to reporters this evening, Varadkar said that Hogan had to pay a high political price over the Golfgate controversy.

Varadkar said he has not heard the interview with Hogan, but added: “But, you know, I appreciate that Phil Hogan paid a very high price politically, more so than anyone who attended that particular event.

“It was probably inevitable given the domino effect and the context of the time.

“But I think it is regrettable that there wasn’t some sort of process, perhaps at European Commission level, and ultimately it was the president of the European Commission who’s accountable, not to us or the Dail.

“And I think that everyone should be afforded due process and a fair hearing, and I’ll certainly try to make sure that’s the case into the future.”

Meanwhile, Tánaiste Micheál Martin said that the context of the time was “very clear”, and that the government had put strict restrictions in place for counties Kildare, Laois and Offaly.

“And I remember deputies getting back on to me saying ‘it is visceral’ – before anything emerged about the individual case – in terms of the public’s reaction to what the government had done in terms of having to put new restrictions (in place).”

Public anger

He added that there was “huge public anger” at the time which led to the resignation of Dara Calleary as both agriculture minister and Fianna Fail deputy leader.

“The other parallel point I would make is that there was actually a significant degree of opportunity and engagement between then commissioner and the president of the Commission.”

In response to the claim from Hogan that information had been fed to the Commission, Martin said: “There is some implication I think that somehow we were driving or feeding stuff into the Commission”.

“No we were not.

“We had no involvement with the president of the Commission in respect of anything prior to the decision of Phil Hogan to resign at the time – completely at arm’s length in terms of any connection between government and the president of the Commission, I want to be very clear about that.”

‘Seen in the context of the time’

Responding to Hogan’s comments on Morning Ireland on RTÉ Radio One, the finance minister Michael McGrath said he did not think there was much point going through the details of the controversy again, but added that government leaders’ decisions had to be placed in the context of the time. 

“I think it has to be seen in the context of its time when Irish people were being asked to make extraordinary sacrifices in the interests of the public good and in the interest of protecting public health.

“When people could not hold public funerals for loved ones where people couldn’t visit loved ones at hospitals. That’s the context, that’s the environment.

“It was a very, very different time. And so all decisions that were made at that time, I think have to be seen through that prism.”

He added that “there’s not much point served in going back over all of that”, as “people in Ireland waking up today are not really worried about” GolfGate and its fallout.

2020 General Election

Regarding the result of the 2020 General Election and Fine Gael’s entry into a coalition Government, Phil Hogan says; “I think Fine Gael should have been in opposition, I think they were wrong to go into Government. They had the lowest votes since 1948 at 20% and when you’re actually rejected by the people which they were on that occasion, they should have gone into opposition.

The people had decided that Fine Gael had been in Government long enough, 20% support was reflective of the fact that the people did not want Fine Gael in Government. We should have stayed out and gone into opposition or had another election.”

On the transition of the Fine Gael leadership to Leo Varadkar in 2017, he said that “Leo Varadkar was the best available leader at the time”, as he possessed “something unique that could broaden the basis of the vote” for the party.

“He articulated the right policy propositions like people getting up early in the morning and being rewarded for their hard work, but unfortunately as soon as he became Taoiseach, that has seemed to have been abandoned as a principle and we didn’t see in the subsequent budgets the manifestation of the implementation of that was promised at the time and that was a mistake.”

This included services including childcare, which Hogan said “were not invested in, sufficiently well in order to allow the maximum participation of women in the workplace”.

As a result, Varadkar didn’t implement these policies “sufficiently strong enough to resonate with the electorate and untimely he paid a price in the 2020 election”, in Hogan’s view.

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