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From Enda's enforcer and the Irish Water 'bogeyman' to a 'bruiser' in Europe: Phil Hogan's decade in the spotlight

Phil Hogan came to the “reluctant conclusion” yesterday that he should step down from his senior EU job.

irish-water-financing-minister-for-th A smiling Hogan holding a glass of water aloft back in 2014. Source: Laura Hutton/Rollingnews.ie

PHIL HOGAN WAS the man in Enda Kenny’s corner when the future Taoiseach needed him.

It was less than a year before the next general election and Fianna Fáil were floundering. Back in 2010, the economy was in turmoil and Fine Gael was sensing another chance at power.

Out of what seemed like nowhere, veteran TD Richard Bruton had got enough support to launch a heave against Kenny. Standing firm for the Mayo man was his loyal lieutenant, Phil Hogan.

Big Phil – an apt name for someone who’s actually 6’5″ – had been in politics for almost 30 years at this stage. He had seen the heave coming and quickly swung into action to secure support for Kenny. He got on the phone to talk to members all over the country to shore up loyalty. 

And he was ultimately successful. Kenny stayed leader, and we all know what happened next.

Sligo-Leitrim TD Frank Feighan told TheJournal.ie in its oral history project on the heave that Hogan was “instrumental” in Enda Kenny remaining leader.

“I think if Phil Hogan wasn’t there the result would probably have been different,” Feighan said.

When Kenny led Fine Gael back to power for the first time in over a decade, the Carlow-Kilkenny TD was rewarded for his loyalty and given a key ministerial role in charge of the Environment, Community and Local Government. 

download (55) Source: Leon Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

It is a number of years now since Hogan was a central figure in Irish public life, with those three years when he was minister up to 2014 particularly sticking out. 

Until the Golfgate scandal that has eventually brought him down, he had become a figure who we’d hear of every few months in the news in Ireland – usually to do with whatever’s happening in Brexit at that time. 

But his actions in June 2010 to support Kenny started off a decade when Hogan became a key political figure – both at home and in Europe. Now, in his own words to RTÉ’s Tony Connelly last night, he has come to the “reluctant conclusion” that his political career has come to an end.

Hogan and water charges

The outpouring of public anger against Hogan in the past week didn’t come from the infamous golf dinner, alone. 

On an emotional segment on RTÉ’s Liveline programme on Monday, a woman grieving for her father who died of Covid-19 just last Wednesday described how the actions of Hogan had particularly upset her. Other callers used words like “arrogant” to describe the EU Commissioner. 

His public image was solidified by some extremely unpopular measures implemented on his watch during his time as minister, despite the introduction of policies that were welcomed such as gender quotas for candidate selection in general elections.

The country was on its knees when Fine Gael-Labour coalition took over in 2011. The government decided to accept the bitter medicine dished out by the Troika, and it was Phil Hogan telling us to take it.

The local property tax was one thing (and a really unpopular thing at that), but the proposed introduction of water charges actually prompted people to take to the streets in their hundreds of thousands. 

Coupled with the unpopularity of these measures themselves was a sense of public distaste for how Hogan managed these crises.

He told RTÉ’s Today with Sean O’Rourke in September 2013 that the Irish people had given the government a mandate to introduce water charges

The Irish Water affair – and how much was being spent on the new charging regime – became a debacle for the government as a PR campaign to try to convince people for the need to pay for water fell flat.

Irish people were furious they were being asked to pay for water when in January 2014 Irish Water CEO John Tierney told Sean O’Rourke that €50 million was being spent on consultants, just as the utility was being established. This spending was shown to include €86 million across consultants, contractors and legal advice. 

Hogan’s comment of “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs” when pushed on this spending didn’t help matters

Water became the main topic and Hogan was a central figure. In the run-up to the local and European elections in May 2014, Labour tried to distance itself from the whole affair. 

The government was accused of treating the public with “absolute contempt” on the issue and it was Hogan who announced how much the average household would pay (€240, although this was later revised down heavily given the outcry) in May 2014.

irish-water-financing-minister-for-th Source: Laura Hutton/Rollingnews.ie

Photographed smiling as he took a swig of water, Hogan told the public that “water pressure will be turned down to a trickle for people who don’t pay”

As public anger deepened, so too did anger against Hogan. Before the first mass protests in October 2014 against water charges, his eyes had already turned to Europe.

Big job in Brussels

Pop quiz time – who was Ireland’s EU Commissioner before Hogan?

If you said Charlie McCreevey, you’d be wrong. The former Fianna Fáil finance minister left his role as European Commissioner for Internal Market and Services in 2010.

Prior to Hogan, it was Máire Geoghegan-Quinn who served as the Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science until November 2014.

It’s in the hands of the government of the day to choose who they’ll nominate to be a candidate for an EU Commissioner role when the time comes. A senior figure is usually chosen as they’re seen as having the necessary experience to aim for some of the top portfolios in the European Commission.

The stars appeared to be aligning for the Taoiseach. Enda Kenny spotted a good opportunity to move the controversial Hogan out of the media’s and public’s crosshairs and into a key role in Europe.

In fact, the Trade role Hogan eventually took in late-2019 was also coveted by the Irish government in 2014.

However it was Agriculture and Rural Development that he took charge of in Europe in November 2014.

He said at the time it was his record of “being able to deliver in difficult circumstances” that won him the position

In a hearing before the EU Parliament’s agriculture committee prior to his appointment, he put in a polished performance convincing MEPs to support him in the role.

Irish MEPs Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan and Matt Carthy had promised to make things uncomfortable for the Fine Gael veteran during the proceedings  — but a format that meant they couldn’t follow up on questions helped Hogan win the day.

In the case of Carthy, Hogan read out a letter from the Sinn Féin MEP’s party colleague in Stormont, Michelle O’Neill. 

In her letter, the Northern Ireland agriculture minister warmly congratulated the Kilkenny politician on his appointment to a “prestigious portfolio”.

Hogan told Carthy that “there seems to be a little break-down in discipline in Sinn Fein, and I hope you won’t get into trouble with it”. This slapdown drew cheers from Hogan’s supporters on the benches.

In his new job as EU Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, Hogan was able to cultivate a fresh persona as a tough negotiator going to bat for Europe while being praised by the government back home for speaking for Irish interests.

international-green-week-2019 Joking with the governing mayor of Berlin Michael Muller in January 2019 Source: Christoph Soeder DPA/PA Images

A senior Commission official told Politico in 2018 that Hogan was seen as a “bit of a bruiser”, but the former minister was also able to network effectively and able to strike a deal.

He played a key role in the Mercosur trade deal between Europe and a number of South American countries, which drew anger from farmers at home. Hogan sought to provide assurances that “safeguards are in place for Irish farmers and consumers” in the deal. 

His role in the landmark trade deal between the EU and Japan was also described as “decisive”. 

By the time he was taking the role of EU Commissioner for Trade late last year, it was clear Brexit would be the major task on his hands.

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He took his usual combative stance here, accusing the UK of showing “no real sign” they want the talks to succeed earlier this year. 

Next chapter

90348510_90348510 Source: Mark Stedman/Rollingnews.ie

Prior to Golfgate, the last time Hogan made the news here was to rule himself out of the running for a top job in the World Trade Organization in late June (if a week is a longtime in politics, two months is an eternity).

Hogan now finds himself out of a job after four decades in politics. It was really in the last decade that he became a prominent figure but, from water charges to golfgate, he has been associated with a long list of rows, controversies and confrontations.  

Across all of these controversies, it has been perceived he adopted an unapologetic tone that wasn’t in tune with the public mood on the matter.

Looking back to water charges in 2017 in an interview with Ivan Yates on Newstalk, Hogan defended the whole affair.

Yates put to him that he was the “bogeyman” of Irish Water, and asked if he had any regrets.

Hogan responded: “I think Irish Water has seen the test of time. It has come through the difficulties of any particular organisation that has been established and it’s now able to stand…”

The presenter interrupted to ask if he had “not one single regret”.

Hogan said that he would have that conversation in the future, but he wouldn’t have it right now.

Facing into retirement now at the age of 60 – at the very least, his retirement from politics – he will have plenty of time to mull that over.

About the author:

Sean Murray

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