Coalition's Phil Hogan dilemma: should he stay or should he go?

Analysis: Varadkar hints at possible escape but some Ministers are sceptical Hogan can keep job

The Government faces a huge decision on the future of European Commissioner Phil Hogan. File photograph: Getty

The Government faces a huge decision on the future of European Commissioner Phil Hogan. File photograph: Getty

 

The Government faces a huge decision on the future of European Commissioner Phil Hogan: does it seek to have him fired, or does it prefer that, on balance, he should remain in his post?

Hogan is the commissioner with responsibility for trade, putting him in a pivotal position as the negotiations on a post-Brexit trade deal between the EU and the UK approach the critical stage in the autumn.

But his attendance at the Oireachtas Golf Society dinner in Clifden last week has caused huge public anger, which continues to rage despite the resignation of Minister for Agriculture Dara Calleary. Hogan and Supreme Court judge Séamus Woulfe, who has also apologised for his attendance at the event, are now at the centre of the controversy.

Sources suggest there are broadly two schools of thought in Government about Hogan’s future.

The first holds that public anger over the dinner has so damaged trust in the Government to manage the pandemic that it must take extraordinary steps to regain that trust, or it will lead to a significant deterioration in public compliance with the restrictions.

And if that happens, the concern is that infections will increase rapidly, threatening to overwhelm the health service.

The resignation of Calleary and the disciplining of minor political figures who attended are not sufficient to assuage public anger.

Hogan – particularly – and Woulfe are now the focus of that public anger, and must resign or be sacked, this school of thought goes. The Government can’t regain trust until they go, and so they must go.

The second school of thought takes a less cataclysmic view and says: yes, but. It holds that while Hogan’s resignation would bring benefits to the Government, on balance the national interest is not served by having him resign at this point, when almost certainly his Irish replacement would not be allocated the trade portfolio.

It acknowledges the damage done to public trust, but believes that, as with all scandals, the passage of time will ease public anger.

People will get on with things, and the Government will get on with running the country. Right now, this mostly revolves around Covid-19 – but pretty soon it will include Brexit, in which Hogan’s help will be needed.

Shift in tone

Last night it seemed that the leaders of the Government were leaning towards the first school of thought. They issued a statement calling for Hogan to “consider his position” – normally a euphemism for resignation.

However, in a radio interview earlier, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar struck a less uncompromising tone, saying Hogan’s abject apology on Sunday morning “helps” and that he needed to answer any further questions about the dinner and his movements around the country before it. (Hogan has faced questions about whether he broke the Kildare lockdown, which he denies.) The implication of Varadkar’s remarks was that if he could answer those questions to people’s satisfaction, he could perhaps remain in office. It is understood that this view is shared across the leadership of the Government parties, though some Ministers remain deeply sceptical.

Ultimately, if the Government desperately wants Hogan gone, the Taoiseach will ask European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen to remove him. But that request is unlikely to be made unless there are further revelations or evidence of blatant inconsistencies in the account Hogan is preparing for his boss.

Hogan is accountable not to the Irish Government but to the European Commission. Sources familiar with the commission say the threshold for removing a commissioner is high.

Commissioners are often targeted by domestic political concerns, and Brussels does not want to have to become embroiled in the fractious politics of 27 countries. But in the context of a global pandemic, if a member of the commission is found to have violated national or local restrictions to the extent that the national government declares it has lost confidence in him – that would be hard for von der Leyen to ignore.

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