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EU Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan is standing his ground in a spiraling Irish political scandal that centers on a packed golf society soirée attended by top politicians in an apparent breach of coronavirus rules.
Two senior Irish politicians, including the agriculture minister, resigned for attending the function at a 3-star hotel in the west coast county of Galway on Wednesday, as fury grew across the country that the top brass flouted the rules while expecting citizens to stay away from loved ones during the pandemic.
Hogan is digging in and insisted in a statement on Friday that he only attended the parliamentary golf society’s event, which gathered over 80 people for a dinner, after receiving assurances that it was in line with Ireland’s coronavirus restrictions. Agriculture Minister Dara Calleary, who sat at the same “Captain’s Table” as Hogan, has quit.
Hogan tweeted: “I attended the Oireachtas [parliament] Golf Society dinner on Wednesday on the clear understanding that the organisers and the hotel concerned had been assured [by the Irish Hotels’ Federation] that the arrangements put in place would be in compliance with the government’s guidelines.”
However, the Irish Hotels Federation (IHF) on Friday said the rules allow no more than 50 people to attend a single event at a hotel, the Irish Examiner reported. “The current guidelines around capacity at an indoor event are clear,” the IHF said, adding that it’s up to each hotel to ensure compliance.
The dinner took place after the new restrictions had entered into force on Wednesday.
Police have launched an investigation into the dinner, the Irish Times reported. While it was not a criminal offense to attend such an event, organizers would be investigated and could be criminally prosecuted, the paper said, citing “informed sources.”
On Tuesday, the Irish government significantly tightened its coronavirus restrictions, reducing the number of people that can meet inside from 50 to just six, after a rise in infections.
The controversial event began Tuesday, featuring golf tournaments between guests, but the dinner took place after the new restrictions had entered into force on Wednesday.
A European Commission spokesperson did not say how long Hogan had stayed at the event at the Clifden Station House Hotel but told journalists: “In hindsight, he would not attend an event which is not in line with the obligations introduced at local level.”
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has been informed about the matter, the spokesperson added.
A seating plan of the dinner posted online appeared to show Hogan was placed as a guest of honor at the top table, at the event which was held to mark the society’s 50th anniversary. The commissioner is one of six honorary lifetime members of the Oireachtas Golf Society — and the only one to have attended.
Accepting Calleary’s resignation, Micheál Martin, Irish prime minister, called Calleary’s presence at the function “wrong and an error of judgement on his part.”
The scandal is yet another embarrassment for Hogan, whose most high-profile action in his second stint as an EU commissioner has been a botched attempt to run for the top job at the World Trade Organization.
Hogan also defended himself against suspicions he had not complied with Ireland’s requirement for travelers from Belgium to quarantine for two weeks, saying he had “fully complied” with the rule when he returned home in late July.
Famed for his gruff, no-nonsense political style and nicknamed Big Phil, the Irishman is an appointee of the conservative Fine Gael party, whose leader Leo Varadkar expelled three politicians from the party on Friday for attending the same dinner. Varadkar commented that the golf society event “should not have happened.”
Hogan, however, has a pedigree as a heavyweight political fixer within Fine Gael and is not an easy figure to budge. Despite reams of comments on Twitter calling for him to resign, it seems unlikely the Irish government will remove Hogan from his Brussels posting, where he is seen as a wily, experienced politician who helps Ireland punch above its weight in the EU.
Trade is a critical job for Ireland to hold during Brexit talks and there is no guarantee that any replacement commissioner nominated by Dublin would receive the same portfolio.
The news of the dinner, broken by the Irish Examiner newspaper on Thursday night, unleashed a torrent of public anger that has filled social media and radio airwaves, with the hashtag “golfgate” trending. #Jaysus was also trending, after an exasperated comment from RTÉ radio host Sarah McInerney.
Thomas, a caller to an RTÉ radio phone-in on Friday lunchtime, tearfully recounted how the pandemic restrictions barred him from seeing his mother in the weeks before she died, and said politicians such as Hogan who attended “need to sit up and start listening to the people of Ireland.”
The Greens, the third party in the coalition government alongside Fine Gael and Martin’s Fianna Fáil, are pressing Hogan to more openly accept his culpability in the scandal.
Roderic O’Gorman, a Green parliamentarian and equality minister said: “There is very real anger among the public. It would be appropriate for Commissioner Hogan to address that.”
“We are making decisions and asking the public to make significant sacrifices in how they live their daily lives. We can’t argue that we don’t know the full impact of those decisions.”
A Fine Gael senator who held a Cabinet post in the previous government, Regina Doherty, said she expected Hogan to apologize rather than defend his actions.
“The very least that needs to be done is a recognition that it was wrong and it shouldn’t have happened. What I would love to see is an apology.”
Mary Lou McDonald, the leader of the largest opposition party Sinn Féin, tweeted that her request for the Irish parliament to be recalled from its summer recess to discuss the scandal had been rebuffed.
The episode is not Hogan’s first golf-related scandal. He apologized for making a crude sexual remark to a former prime ministerial aide during a 2011 golfing outing with the very same Oireachtas golfing society.
Lili Bayer and Zosia Wanat contributed reporting.
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