Insisting that he “broke no law”, Ireland’s European commissioner Phil Hogan bowed to mounting pressure last night and resigned, becoming the latest casualty of an extraordinary political controversy stemming from last week’s Oireachtas Golf Society dinner.
Mr Hogan departed after conversations with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen yesterday, though he insisted that the decision was his own and he had not been asked for his resignation.
It was clear in recent days that there was growing unhappiness in the commission at Mr Hogan’s incomplete explanations of his movements around Ireland in advance of last week’s golf dinner in apparent violation – though he denied it – of coronavirus restrictions.
The uncompromising attitude of the Government – which made clear since the weekend its view that Mr Hogan should resign, while conceding it was a decision for the commission president – further added to the momentum against the Irish commissioner.
Earlier yesterday, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said Mr Hogan had “undermined the whole approach to public health in Ireland”.
The announcement was greeted with relief in Government circles last night with sources hoping that the Coalition could now put the Oireachtas golf controversy – which has dominated politics for the past week and aroused huge public anger – behind it.
The Government faces huge challenges over the coming days as schools reopen for the first time since March.
Mr Hogan’s resignation brings to an end a colourful and impactful political career spanning nearly four decades as Fine Gael councillor, TD for his native Kilkenny, minister and – since 2014 – Ireland’s EU commissioner.
I reiterate my heartfelt apology to the Irish people for the mistakes I made during my visit
He was regarded as one of the genuine “big beasts” of Irish politics – a fierce champion of his own party who often raised the hackles of his opponents.
In a statement, Mr Hogan said the controversy was becoming a distraction from his work as a 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,” he said.
“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 recognised and appreciated the devastating impact of Covid-19 on individuals and families.
In a brief statement, Dr von der Leyen paid tribute to Mr Hogan’s contribution as Commissioner.
“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,” she said.
Government Buildings also paid tribute to Mr Hogan, saying he had served Europe and Ireland “with distinction”. In a joint statement, Mr Martin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan also said he had made the “correct decision” to stand down.
Sources in Brussels said Mr Hogan’s resignation began to look inevitable yesterday when it became apparent to officials in Dr von der Leyen’s office that his lengthy explanation of his movements during his time in Ireland – supplied at her request – was incomplete in some respects, damaging trust between the president and the commissioner.
Mr Hogan’s itinerary revealed he had not completed 14 days of self-isolation according to the rules for incoming travellers, and contradicted earlier statements from a spokeswoman for the commission that claimed he had isolated for the full two weeks. This raised questions about whether he had misled his employer about his movements.
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.
Ireland will now 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.
His departure is also likely to increase pressure on newly appointed Supreme Court judge Séamus Woulfe, who also attended the dinner in Clifden last week. His attendance is the subject of an investigation by the former chief justice, Susan Denham.