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Taoiseach will not 'seek to influence' EU Commission President's decision on Phil Hogan

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said that the government has lost confidence in the Trade Commissioner.

Phil Hogan during his interview with RTÉ News yesterday.
Phil Hogan during his interview with RTÉ News yesterday.
Image: RTE via RollingNews.ie

Updated Aug 26th 2020, 12:30 PM

TAOISEACH MICHEÁL MARTIN has insisted he will “not seek to influence” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on any decision she makes involving her confidence in Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan following the ongoing controversy surrounding his recent visit to Ireland. 

At the Commission’s daily press conference today, a spokesperson for von der Leyen said the Commission President is “studying carefully” a report submitted by Hogan. 

“I can tell you she is committed to making an assessment that is comprehensive and fair,” the spokesperson said. “She will be ready to complete her assessment when she feels she has the full picture over this matter.”

There was no detail provided on when a decision on Hogan’s fate would be made by von der Leyen.  

Asked about whether it was appropriate for national leaders in member states to claim that they have no confidence in a commissioner and whether that could be seen as putting pressure on von der Leyen, the spokesperson declined to comment. 

Speaking to reporters this morning, Martin said it would not be his place to interfere with the review being carried out at European level and added that he has not contacted von der Leyen regarding the issue. 

“There has been significant difficulty for government in terms of the changing narrative as the story has unfolded. I think the people across the country have made great sacrifices in adhering to the guidance in relation to Covid-19,” Martin said. 

“The three leaders met yesterday, Taoiseach, Tánasite and Minister Eamon Ryan, we discussed this, we issued a statement, and I think the key assessment from us is in terms of the degree to which the guidelines were not adhered to in respect to the commissioner. 

“The Commissioner is ultimately responsible and accountable to the Commission and to the President of the Commission, he is not accountable to the Oireachtas and the government and I was very clear in honouring and observing that demarcation.

“Clearly the President has to work within the legal parameters of the treaties and I am not going to in any way seek to influence or interfere with the President’s confidence in that regard.”

Hogan has insisted he “acted in good faith” when travelling in Ireland in recent weeks, but questions remain over his movements.

Hogan yesterday published a lengthy statement and timeline attempting to explain his movements in Ireland leading up to his attendance at the controversial Oireachtas Golf Society event in Clifden, Co Galway, last Wednesday.

On RTÉ Radio One’s Morning Ireland today, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said the government has lost confidence in Hogan after the Commissioner clearly breached guidelines, as well as “the lack of immediate transparency and explanation and immediate apology”.

However, he said the government would respect whatever decision von der Leyen makes about Hogan’s position.

“It’s important for us that we do move on, that we do actually focus on the critical economic and international policy issues that are before us, that is essential.

“But at the same time, we have to make our position clear and I think make clear that position around the Irish public health guidelines because they are important for the future health and welfare and wellbeing of the Irish people,” Ryan said.

On the same programme, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly called on Hogan to “consider his position”.

“What happened in Galway is an absolute disgrace. It is a slap in the face for every man woman and family who has made sacrifices in so many different ways.

“I believe the Commissioner should listen to the Taoiseach and Tánaiste, and I agree with their position that he should consider his position.”

Donnelly added: “What really annoyed me about Galway is that it eroded people’s confidence quite rightly, people were furious and they were right to be furious.

“My message is the virus hasn’t gone away. We are at a tipping point in Ireland right now. We must do everything we can to avoid another national lockdown.”

‘I don’t accept that’

Yesterday evening, Hogan did an interview with RTÉ News to explain his movements further.

The Irish Examiner reported that Hogan was in Limerick on 12 August, questioning the extent of his movements while in Ireland further. Though Hogan’s statement mentions playing a game of golf in Adare, Co Limerick on 13 August, it doesn’t say he was in Limerick on 12 August – which would have been his last day of quarantine.

During the interview Tony Connelly, quoting guidance from the HSE, said: “Even if you have a Covid test and you test negative, you are still obliged to see out the end of your 14-day restricted period.”

Hogan replied: “Well, I don’t accept that. I did everything possible to ensure that I was no risk to anybody. I tested negatively for Covid-19, my medical people said I was free to go.

“I looked at the websites and checked the regulations, as any person would do, and I checked on the Citizens Information website, which is funded by the Health Service Executive (it’s actually funded by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection), the same people you’re quoting, and it stated very explicitly that if you have a Covid-19 negative test, you are free to go where you wish, you don’t have to self-isolate.”

Last night, Hogan tweeted a clarification stating: “I never said that I don’t accept the HSE advice, I was taking issue at the proposition put to me in the interview. At all times, I acted in good faith on the basis of the information available to me.”

‘Clear breaches of guidelines’ 

Following the interview, Martin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Ryan released a joint statement. They welcomed Hogan’s explanation and apology, but said “concerns remain”.

“It is clear that breaches of public health guidelines were made by Commissioner Phil Hogan since he travelled to Ireland.

“The government guidelines clearly required him to restrict his movements for 14 days. He should also have limited his movements to and from Kildare for essential travel only, and he should not have attended the Oireachtas Golf Society dinner.

“People are correctly angered by these actions given the sacrifices so many have made to adhere to public health guidance. In addition, his delayed and hesitant release of information has undermined public confidence,” the statement noted. 

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The report from Hogan to von der Leyen was requested after it emerged that he made a second trip to Kildare – this time after the Oireachtas Golf Society event.

In a timeline of his visit, Hogan outlined stays in Kildare, Kilkenny and Galway and three rounds of golf.

In the report to von der Leyen, Hogan said he “adhered to [Covid-19 requirements] at all times” and was not required to “self-isolate or quarantine” because he tested negative for Covid-19 after a hospital appointment.

In a statement issued yesterday evening, the Department of Health outlined HSE guidance which “states that when someone is restricting their movements because they are a close contact of a confirmed case or because they have travelled into Ireland from a non-Green-List country, they must do so for 14 days”.

“The HSE guidance does not state that a negative (not detected) Covid-19 test shortens the 14-day restricted movement requirement.

“Passengers arriving to Ireland from overseas are legally required to complete a Covid-19 Passenger Locator Form. The form may be used for the purpose of contact tracing in the event that there is a suspected or confirmed case on board a flight or ferry.”

In response to Hogan’s citation of its website’s advice as the reason he ended his quarantine early, Citizens Information released a statement, which includes the extract:

“Our webpage on Testing for COVID-19 covers information for people in Ireland who may need to be tested for COVID-19. In this page, we refer to self-isolating and no longer requiring to self-isolate in the context of people who have been tested on the advice of the HSE, and does not apply to people who must restrict their movements for 14 days upon entry to the State.”

Responding to Phil Hogan’s assertion that the Citizens Information site is funded by the HSE, the Citizens Information Board clarified: “We are not funded by the HSE. We are funded by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection.”

With reporting from Dominic McGrath and Conor McCrave

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Órla Ryan

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