Why is it taking so long to find Phil Hogan’s replacement?

Delay underlines difficulties that remain at the centre of Government

Three things may fairly be said about the long drawn-out saga of selecting Phil Hogan’s replacement. The first is that the public is likely as disengaged as the political system is transfixed by the process. Politicians care about jobs for politicians; the public much less so.

The second is that the delay is looking increasingly aimless.

And the third is that the process of replacing Hogan – who resigned almost a week ago, remember – has underlined the difficulties that remain at the centre of Government.

It didn’t have to be like this. There was no dispute on potentially the most divisive aspect of the replacement – which party would get the gig. Fianna Fáil and the Greens understood from the start that it would be a Fine Gael person who replaced Hogan. (The understanding is that the next commissioner will be a Fianna Fáil person appointment).


The corollary of that, of course, is that if it is a “Fine Gael appointment”, the indecision is in Fine Gael. Although some people in Fine Gael have been trying in recent days to suggest the delay was because Fianna Fáil and the Greens were dragging their heels, this is widely disbelieved, including by many in Fine Gael. It is also emphatically disputed by both Fianna Fáil and the Greens.

Suitable candidates

“This is Leo. It’s his problem,” says a senior person in Government. Senior sources in all three parties agree with this.

Nor is the delay explained by a lack of suitable candidates – the opposite, in fact; it has been evident to both the Taoiseach and Leo Varadkar since the weekend that Simon Coveney was available to serve. For a time, it was expected in Government – and a course of action favoured by many in Fine Gael – that Coveney would be the sole name forwarded to Brussels.

Publicly and privately, however, commission president Ursula von der Leyen made clear that she wanted two names – a woman and a man, as she pointedly put it – from Dublin, offering her the opportunity to demonstrate the commission’s contribution to gender equality. As if by magic, MEP Maireád McGuinness made her candidacy very public. She was followed by her fellow MEP – and former tánaiste – Frances Fitzgerald.

There was immediate pushback from some people in Government, who viewed this – with some justification – as an unwarranted interference on the right of each member state to nominate its own commissioner.

Important distinction

Subsequent briefing from the commission demonstrated a subtle but important distinction. Von der Leyen would seek two names, officials said, and speak to each. Then she would inform the Government of her preferred candidate. And then she would allocate portfolios. The Government can, under the treaties, nominate whoever it wants. But von der Leyen can – under the treaties – give the newcomer any job she wants.

A substantial part of the delay of recent days – according to people involved in the process – has been to allow the Irish Government, and Varadkar and Coveney especially, to make a judgment on which candidate might get what portfolio. While Dublin at first believed that the trade portfolio could be retained with a candidate of sufficient clout, that hope has faded as the days have passed. A decent mid-ranking portfolio is now the summit of Dublin’s ambition.

That may not be a sufficient prize to tempt Coveney. It would be one thing if he was guaranteed the role; but it has become clear that he was not. The expectation in Government last night is that he was moving away from letting his name go forward. Either way, the episode has been an example of chronic indecision. And this time, Fine Gael can’t blame its Coalition partners.