AUGUST 2020 will be remembered for Covid-19, Storm Ellen followed in quick succession by Storm Francis and, of course, the controversial ‘Golf-gate’ dinner at the Station House in Clifden, which sparked public fury and led to the resignation of a government Minister and a European Commissioner.
People woke up to the news early on the Friday morning (August 21st) that over 80 people from the Oireachtas Golf Society had gathered for dinner on the Wednesday evening at a time when the whole country’s efforts were focused on containing the coronavirus. Irish Agriculture Minister Dara Calleary was the first casualty after just 37 days in office, while EU Trade chief Phil Hogan came under increasing pressure from Dublin to step down from his plum job in Brussels.
Following a series of revelations about Hogan’s movements around the country, he tendered his resignation to Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, while insisting that he believed he complied with public health guidelines during his July 31st to August 22nd visit to Ireland.
In a statement issued on the evening of August 26th, the Irish Fine Gael politician said that the controversy over his visit home, including public outrage over the dinner held in Clifden on August 19th, was ‘becoming a distraction from my work as an EU Commissioner and would undermine my work in the key months ahead.’ The 60-year-old Tullaroan man said that he deeply regretted that his trip “caused such concern, unease and upset.”
As the furore developed, dominating the airwaves and newspaper headlines all week, An Taoiseach Micheál Martin said Hogan ‘undermined the whole approach to public health in Ireland. We’ve made very clear our anger and annoyance.’
Meanwhile, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, via twitter on August 26th, described his party colleague as having ‘served Kilkenny, Ireland and Europe with distinction.’ The former Taoiseach said the decision to resign ‘must have been very difficult for him personally.’ Varadkar added: ‘It’s sad that a great career should end in this way,’
Leading politicians and top MEPs were among the figures heading speculation on Phil Hogan’s replacement as Irish Commissioner following the so-called ‘Golf-gate’ controversy, while Dublin was unlikely to retain the coveted trade brief. Ireland’s Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney, a Fine Gael politician and former Tánaiste (2017-2020), was being touted as a front runner, along with first vice-president of the European Parliament, Mairead McGuinness, who has been a prominent member of the EP’s Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development since her entry into European politics in May 2004.
Another MEP and former Tánaiste (2016-2017), Frances Fitzgerald of Fine Gael (both women belong to the largest EPP political group), was also being floated as a serious contender.
Current Tánaiste and former Taoiseach (2017-2020) Leo Varadkar, leader of Fine Gael, also ruled himself out, having told reporters on August 27th that ‘my intention is to continue to lead my party … and to become Taoiseach again in 2022,’ although some observers fastened on the word ‘intention,’ as a sign the 41-year-old, with a high international profile and a burning ambition, may have been prepared to change his mind ‘in the national interest.’
A further line of thinking among pundits was that Ireland could go for an ‘independent’ candidate with broad experience of EU affairs, rather than a politician. One suggestion was David O’Sullivan, EU Ambassador to the US from 2014 to 2019 and a former Secretary General of the Commission (2000 to 2005).
Another was Andrew McDowell, Vice-President of the European Investment Bank (EIB) since 2016 and a former Fine Gael economic adviser, but the thinking in Dublin was that the top job should go to a seasoned politician rather than a technocrat.
The government eventually nominated Mairead McGuinness and Andrew McDowell for Ursula von der Leyen to choose between. Earlier this week, Ms McGuinness was appointed as the EU Commissioner with responsibility for Financial Services, Financial Stability and Capital Markets.
• Rose O’Donovan is editor-in-chief of the Brussels-based publication AGRA FACTS.