Phil Hogan has resigned as Ireland’s European Commissioner in the wake of the controversy over his breaches of public safety restrictions in Ireland.
Last week, Mr Hogan attended the Oireachtas Golf Society event in Clifden, with 80 others, and his movements to and from the controversial event while coronavirus restrictions were in place have been under scrutiny.
Mr Hogan had come under increasing pressure after he was asked to give an account of his movements while in Ireland by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
The departure means Ireland will have to nominate a new commissioner to replace Mr Hogan. It is unclear whether Ireland will retain the key trade portfolio, as this is at the discretion of Dr von der Leyen, who may choose to reshuffle her commissioners.
In a statement on Wednesday night, Mr Hogan said the controversy was becoming a distraction from his work as an EU Commissioner and would undermine it in the key months ahead
“I deeply regret that my trip to Ireland – the country that I have been so proud to represent as a public servant for most of my adult life - caused such concern, unease and upset. I have always tried to comply with all relevant Covid-19 regulations in Ireland and had understood that I had met with all relevant public health guidelines, particularly following confirmation of a negative Covid-19 test.
“I reiterate my heartfelt apology to the Irish people for the mistakes I made during my visit. The Irish people have made incredible efforts to contain the coronavirus, and the European Commission will continue to support you, and all EU member states, in defeating this terrible pandemic.”
He also said he recognises the devastating impact of Covid-19 on individuals and families.
“I fully understand their sense of hurt and anger when they feel that those in public service do not meet the standards expected of them. It is important to state that I did not break any law. As a public representative I should have been more rigorous in my adherence to the Covid guidelines.”
In an interview on the RTÉ Nine O’Clock News, Mr Hogan declined to be drawn on questions over his treatment.
It is a “matter for another day” as to whether he got due process from the Government, he said.
He said it “didn’t cross my mind today” as to whether Ireland will retain the key trade portfolio.
In a joint statement, Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said they acknowledge the resignation of Mr Hogan.
“While this must have been a difficult decision for him personally, we believe that it is the correct course of action given the circumstances of the past week. We all have a responsibility to support and adhere to public health guidelines and regulations,” they said. “We all must persevere in our efforts against Covid- 19.”
The statement said the Government would consider Mr Hogan’s replacement “in due course”.
Earlier on Wednesday, the Taoiseach said Mr Hogan had “undermined the whole approach to public health in Ireland” but stopped short of saying he did not have confidence in the EU trade commissioner.
Stopping short of declaring that he does not have confidence in Mr Hogan, Mr Martin said “the commissioner is accountable to the Commission, not to the Oireachtas and not the Government”.
Separately, Mr Ryan said the administration had lost confidence in Mr Hogan because of the lack of immediate transparency and communication from him.
Meanwhile, Dr von der Leyen said in a statement that she “respects” Mr Hogan’s decision.
“Commissioner Phil Hogan has submitted his resignation. I respect his decision. I am very grateful to him for his tireless work as a Trade Commissioner since the start of this mandate and for his successful term as Commissioner in charge of Agriculture in the previous College. He was a valuable and respected member of the College. I wish him all the best for the future.”
On Tuesday, Mr Hogan delivered a lengthy explanation of his attendance at the controversial Oireachtas golf dinner and a timeline of his movements in the period preceding the event.
He again apologised for his attendance at the event, but insisted he did not break any health guidelines – saying a negative Covid test excused him from quarantining after arriving here from Belgium and exemptions for essential work meant he was permitted to break the local lockdown in Co Kildare.
Mr Hogan said it was there in “black and white” on the Citizens Information website that anyone who has had a negative result in a Covid-19 test was no longer required to self-isolate. But the Department of Health disputed this, saying that this did not apply to people arriving in the country, who were required to complete their period of quarantine despite a negative test.
In addition, eyewitnesses came forward to say that in the week after his arrival in Ireland he had not been isolating, but instead had been using the public restaurant, bar and library of the K Club hotel and golf resort in Co Kildare, where he has an apartment.
The HSE and Citizens Information issued statements saying that all incoming travellers from non-Green List countries must stay in self isolation for 14 days even if they test negative for Covid-19, contradicting Mr Hogan’s justification for cutting short his quarantine.
Questions about Mr Hogan dominated a Brussels press conference hosted by European Commission spokeswoman Dana Spinant on Wednesday.
The trade commissioner submitted a timeline of his movements to Dr von der Leyen that was quickly called into question as new information emerged about his whereabouts, and the HSE and Citizens Information service denied his interpretation of coronavirus rules.
“The president is studying carefully the report that was submitted by Commissioner Hogan yesterday,” Ms Spinant told journalists, describing the matter as “a serious one”.
“The president is in contact with Commissioner Hogan about it. On the other hand, we have taken note of the statement by Irish authorities.”
The Commission spokeswoman said that according to their information, Mr Hogan had complied with Belgium’s two-week quarantine obligation on his return from Ireland this weekend and emphasised it was important for all officials to follow the rules.
In a statement on Tuesday night, the leaders of the three Government parties said that “concerns remain” about Mr Hogan’s movements after arriving in Ireland last month and the manner in which he has explained them.
Other elements of Mr Hogan’s explanation have also been called into doubt. Mr Hogan dined in a public restaurant at the K Club on the night he flew into Ireland from Brussels last month, according to a woman who saw him in the restaurant.
The woman, who did not want to be named, told The Irish Times that Mr Hogan dined with two other guests at the table behind her and her husband on the night of Friday, July 31st.
“We were there for our wedding anniversary; he was seated at the table behind us with two other gentlemen,” she said.
The revelations undermine Mr Hogan’s claims on Tuesday that he flew into Ireland on July 31st and “self-isolated for the days up to the 5th of August”, when he tested negative for Covid-19 at a medical appointment in a Dublin hospital.
A spokesman for Mr Hogan had no comment to make on the July 31st dinner.
The woman who said she sat at the table next to his that night said she was “totally surprised” that Mr Hogan was now claiming that he abided by public health rules.
Another woman, Niamh Duffy, from Co Cork, said she stayed at the K Club during the first week of August and saw Mr Hogan using public areas of the resort when he should have been self-isolating.
The Irish Times has also learned that Mr Hogan made a social visit to Co Roscommon on August 17th that was not disclosed in the itinerary of his movements published by the European Commission.
It is understood Mr Hogan paid a social visit in the county on the day in which he travelled from Co Kilkenny to Co Galway via Co Kildare.