‘Although the recent local election results provided the party with little to shout about,” stated a Young Fine Gael newsletter in 1986, “in Phil Hogan’s case it demonstrated just how a little charm, good humour and a lot of hard work can pay off.”
Charm, good humour and hard work – these are qualities that people in Brussels who have witnessed Hogan move through in the European capital over the last six years instantly recognise.
But there are other traits they see too, traits that are not unfamiliar to those who have joined forces or crossed swords with the Kilkenny man over a political career that spans almost four decades: self-confidence tending to arrogance; a forcefulness felt by some as overbearing; and a single-minded ruthlessness in the pursuit of political and personal interests.
If needs be, Hogan was always prepared to shoot the wounded. This week, he was the one looking for mercy. It was not forthcoming.
Hogan is one of the few Irish politicians who have translated their undoubted abilities on the local and national stage to success on the European milieu. Ray Mac Sharry did it. So did Charlie McCreevy. Pádraig Flynn, too, though that did not end well. And nor has it ended well for Hogan, forced this week to offer his resignation to the president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen after revelations about his attendance at – of all things – the Oireachtas Golf Society’s dinner and his travels around Ireland in apparent violation (though he insists he broke no laws) of Covid-19 restrictions.
Brussels insiders wondered before this week if von der Leyen might be immune to Hogan’s charm, preferring the more tangible business of fact and verification. So it has proved. Hogan was unable or unwilling to provide a satisfactorily complete account of his time in Ireland and if von der Leyen was prepared to allow him time, her patience was not infinite. As Naomi O’Leary’s reporting from Brussels has demonstrated, in the end von der Leyen lost trust in him and that’s why he had to go. Perhaps a more open and convincingly apologetic approach would have saved Hogan, but we’ll never know.
What many of his contemporaries and observers wonder is how a politician of such proven ability could fail so badly to understand the national mood, both in its expectation that people – especially politicians – would comply with the pandemic restrictions, and its anger when they did not. It was a failure of the most basic skill of a politician – being able read the room – on an epic scale.
Even within his own party, he was feared, loathed, loved and admired, often all at the same time
Hogan has often been accused of arrogance; but he was also able to connect with ordinary people. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Fine Gael organisation – and a capacity to judge the small-bore politics of most situations. But as he navigated the shoals and reefs of Brussels, rising to become a significant player on the international stage in one of the small number of commission jobs that has real global clout, these skills became less important.
Like all successful institutions, the European Commission has a strong sense of itself. It is the guardian of the treaties, the heart of the European project, defending it and promoting it in the face of all threats and enemies – be they its own national governments or international rivals. It is a large but tightly focused operation staffed by mostly clever and motivated people.
At its apex are the 27 commissioners, one drawn from each member state, but who take a vow to serve not their national interest, but the cause of the European Union. Even in discussions they eschew phrases such as “my country”, preferring to refer to “the member state with which I am most familiar”.
To be a commissioner is to live a life apart. They have well-staffed private offices and the resources of a great civil service. They are whisked around the city by the commission’s chauffeur service. They are paid a salary of €22,000 a month, plus handsome allowances, but hardly have time to spend it.
In Brussels, to be a European commissioner is to be at the very top of the political tree. To be one of the handful with a truly significant portfolio – as Hogan was – is to enjoy both status and power.
And unlike, say, an Irish government minister, there is little to ground commissioners to more mundane matters. There are no constituents to appease, no party to tend, and little meaningful scrutiny by parliament, press or public. Commissioners are governed by a raft of ethics laws, but it is mostly their own staff that do the policing. It is a gilded existence.
Hogan returned in late July from this Elysian situation to a country groaning after months of pandemic restrictions and a people with little tolerance for politicians who gave the appearance of thinking the rules did not apply to them. In an iconoclastic age where ordinariness is a virtue in politicians and there is no greater crime that being “out of touch”, Hogan could not have hit a more raw nerve if he tried.
But the politics of Ireland now are different to those Hogan left in 2014 in other ways. The clubby Oireachtas dominated by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, who could disagree during the day but all go and play golf together at the end of it, is gone forever. It has been replaced by a radically different parliament – more divided, more combative, more partisan and less collegiate – where the old frenemies have to cling to one another to retain power. There were no Sinn Féin TDs at the golf dinner, that’s for sure. Here is Hogan’s tragedy: he was operating according to the rules of the old world; a world that is gone.
For a career that ascended to the heights of European politics, Hogan’s rise was steady rather than spectacular. He became councillor on the death of his father in 1982, a senator in 1987 and a TD in 1989.
In a looser, boozier political culture, he was part of a bunch of Fine Gael TDs – including Enda Kenny, Michael Lowry and others – who often drank in Dessie Hynes’ pub on Upper Baggot Street and sometimes found themselves in Joy’s nightclub up the road, a haunt of night owls, journalists, the odd gregarious lawyer and other creatures of metropolitan nightlife.
By the mid-1990s Fine Gael was in government and Hogan was minister of state in the Department of Finance, a man on the up. But then came a stumble: an aide sent out details of the budget hours before they were officially issued and he was forced to resign.
Few doubted they would see him in ministerial office again. But the age of Bertie Ahern was dawning, and it would be 14 years before Fine Gael returned to power.
By then, Hogan was a big beast of the party, and a close ally of Kenny’s. He was party chairman for several years, and a key fundraiser – a fact that would be examined by the Moriarty tribunal when businessman Denis O’Brien’s donations to Fine Gael aroused its interest. Hogan was not a central focus of the tribunal’s inquiries by any means, but he was on the fringes of some of them.
He had even been a candidate for the leadership of the party after the electoral meltdown of 2002, when Kenny came though a crowded, if hardly stellar, field. Few thought Hogan could be leader; a keen political brain, sure; but too abrasive; more a backroom dealmaker than a front of house guy.
But if he wasn’t going to be leader, he showed that every leader needs a “Big Phil”. Hogan’s reputation as Kenny’s bruiser was cemented by his management of the defence against Richard Bruton’s leadership heave in 2010. Hogan – in London for a Fine Gael golf fundraiser – had the defence marshalled before the heave had even properly begun, contacting TDs and ensuring they would remain loyal to Kenny.
He used a mixture of threats and promises to keep Kenny’s support tight and prevent the “cappuccino plotters” from gaining momentum. When the votes were counted, Kenny was the victor by a still undisclosed margin. Hogan’s status in the inevitable Fine Gael administration was cemented.
In the following election, he demonstrated a more subtle political touch than that required during the bare-knuckle fight of the heave against Kenny, appealing to “decent Fianna Fáil people” to “lend” their votes for Fine Gael.
With Hogan as director of elections, Fine Gael won 76 seats, its best result ever and within a handful of seats of an overall majority. Hogan became minister for the environment.
Even within his own party, he was feared, loathed, loved and admired, often all at the same time. Like other ministers, he embarked on a round of budget cuts and other austerity measures. By the time he introduced water charges, though, public tolerance after six years of cuts and higher taxes was all but exhausted. There were huge protests, and the fact that the contract for installing the water meters had been won by a company owned by O’Brien gave things an added edge. Coalition partner Labour – spooked and correctly so – insisted on a pause. It was Hogan’s cue to leave. To Brussels, then, as agriculture commissioner.
He soon became a significant player in European circles, admired for his political nous and his on-the-ground understanding of the mechanics of the Common Agricultural Policy. He saw through reforms of the policy and concluded the Mercosaur trade deal with a group of South American countries. His promotion to the trade portfolio was testament to his standing as a heavyweight in Brussels. His departure represents a significant diminishing of Ireland’s clout in Europe – but it also leaves the commission with a big hole to fill. The fall of Big Phil will reverberate for some time to come.