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The wily Trade Commissioner’s future rests on a report into his implausible explanations from the circumspect but stringent EU Commission President.

By Jonathan Baxter.

National morale had already been starting to crack before more than 80 attendees sat down for dinner at the Clifden Station House Hotel. As a result, this was never going to be a story that could be waited-out and wished-away. Yet that is exactly what one of Ireland’s most influential politicians has been manoeuvring towards.

In the first three months of the pandemic, Irish people were among the most positive in the world in rating their government’s response to the crisis. A large part of that was due to the trust and credibility that Leo Varadkar and Simon Harris generated.

It was impressive. So often criticised as elitist and out of touch, Fine Gael had managed to position themselves as the guardians of the people. There were mistakes and disapproval but never enough to bring the position of the government into question. When British anger erupted over Dominic Cummings in May, there was some gratitude that we in Ireland did not have to suffer such a personality.

That has now changed with Fine Gael’s Phil Hogan and his stuttering three-stage response to fury over his choice to attend the Oireachtas Golf Society dinner in Galway. His initial statement included no apology, instead diverting blame to the Irish Hotels’ Federation. The lack of personal responsibility – so emphasised by public health frontmen Dr Tony Holohan and Dr Ronan Glynn – was evident and damning. 

His second response was a textbook political non-apology, stating he apologised “for any distress caused by his attendance”. This artful placement of “any” instead of “the” was another refusal to meet public anger with a real, direct and humble apology. It was a simple but deliberate choice, and one which has no favourable interpretation.

On Sunday, Hogan issued a third statement and second apology. This time he apologised “fully and unreservedly”, stating his actions “touched a nerve” and that he was “extremely sorry”. It seemed he was on the right track. It was inevitably too, he said, “fulsome” a word that is so widely misused that most people have forgotten it means insincere.

But then came the choice to state that he recognised “the issue is far bigger than compliance with rules and regulations and adherence to legalities and procedures.” Within that is a subtle suggestion that he had not broken any rules. Even if that were true, the need to include such a point is another example of hubris on Hogan’s part.

Very few politicians are willing to jump before they’re pushed and resign out of a principled acknowledgement of wrongdoing. Hogan is not unusual in that respect. But there is a tipping point when the consequences of not resigning are greater than any benefit of staying on. 

The intervention by Michéal Martin and Leo Varadkar in asking Hogan to “consider his position” was initially significant but later recast. On RTE Radio 1’s Sunday ‘This Week’ programme, Varadkar said Hogan must apologise, explain himself and – only if the explanation was wanting – consider his position. Antagonism was waning where it mattered.  Retribution was quick for others but Hogan is prevaricating. 

He doesn’t want to step down, either because he feels he doesn’t need to or his importance in the European Commission is too great. But ultimately the Trade Commissioner is prevaricating because he can. Big Phil is too big to fail. Fianna Fáil backbencher Jim O’Callaghan suggested to This Week that the balance lay with retaining his expertise where it was unlikely any Irish replacement for him would retain his portfolio.

This seemed to be weighing apples against oranges: ethics against pragmatism. Micheál Martin’s stance too was unclear or at least without vigour. The Irish Times, whose views on these things is respected among some of the people who will take decisions on Hogan, seems on balance to be suggesting the Big Man should go.

The calculations for Hogan’s fellow attendees Dara Calleary and Jerry Buttimer, or at least their respective parties, was clear. They were not going to get out of this scandal intact and offered what they thought was a proportionate sacrifice in resigning from an elevated position in the Oireachtas. While both remain in place as elected representatives, they have lost their offices. The public has been satisfied.

The position is different with Phil Hogan and Supreme Court judge Séamus Woulfe who, only appointed to the highest judicial authority in July, also attended the dinner. Separation of powers make a government move against Woulfe unrealistic while Hogan has no title or role within the Oireachtas to resign from. 

Beyond their signal to the public that Hogan’s action were unacceptable, neither Martin or Varadkar hold much power over Hogan. Varadkar could expel him from Fine Gael but, as European Commissioner for Trade, Hogan serves the EU, not the appointing member state.

The real power over Hogan rests with his boss, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Technically dismissal requires an adjudication of the European Court of Justice but no-one believes that he would not jump if von der Leyen demanded it. At that point, even the most stubborn and arrogant politician would have no option but to resign. 

At the time of writing and according to high-ranking sources, the Irish government is awaiting Von der Leyen to receive the trade commissioner’s report before deciding on Hogan’s future.

Her decision will have to take into account that Hogan appears to have lied about observance of national quarantine restrictions. His European Commission spokesperson initially said compliance was complete but it now emerges he returned to locked-down Kildare to collect “personal belongings and essential work documents”.

Why did he need to do this? It is implausible he could not have taken his work material with him when he left pre-lockdown Kildare for Kilkenny. And that is to assume some significant purpose of his return was genuinely work-related. 

The EU has an acuter eye for dishonesty than we have in venal Ireland. Though the threshold for axing a Commissioner, which brings on ugly national machinations, is understandably high, it will not be impressed if Hogan is found to have deliberately misled or distorted the facts around his movements in a time of crisis.

The development that Hogan was stopped by gardaí during his travels in Ireland for using his mobile phone while driving is also malign given the recent loss of a government minister for a driving offence. It also conjures an image of the old busy, dodgy, fund-raising Phil who animated the discourse for a generation.

And so it is left to von der Leyen to decide Hogan’s fate. If it is negative, she can look forward to a move with no national resistance. In the EU filibustering counts for little.