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Kathy Sheridan: Big Phil’s apologists fail to see big picture

Social solidarity will not flourish where power sticks thumbs in its people’s eyes

On Monday, readers might have got a stinging insight into the mindset of an old family firm once regarded with some affection. Eoin Drea’s opinion piece read like one of those confidential assessments ordered up by the boss (the European People’s Party, Fine Gael’s umbrella group in Europe) about a terribly disappointing unit (Ireland) which got emailed to the entire industry by mistake.

Drea’s argument in short is that this minuscule country showed terminal stupidity in “forcing” the resignation of Phil Hogan; as in a country “literally gone kamikaze on its own economic interests”.

It’s arguable, so damned arguable that it has been argued incessantly and exhaustively and depressingly to the point of falling down and begging a dancing barman to empty a barrel of 176 proof Balkan vodka down its open mouth. But we have this little local difficulty that Drea refers to just once: “That is not to downplay [Hogan’s] actions or minimise the impact of the pandemic on Ireland, but . . .”

That’s the height of it.


This is relevant because of Drea’s position. He is a senior researcher at the Brussels-based Wilfried Martens Centre, “the official think tank of the European People’s Party of which Fine Gael is a member” or, as described in the Guardian, “a centre-right think tank dedicated to promoting European integration”. It’s also the 10th biggest think tank worldwide by its own measure. So think on.

Every single denizen of the Brussels’ “bubble” is gobsmacked at Ireland’s provincial little tantrum, by this account: “MEPs across all parties feel Hogan’s punishment was a totally disproportionate response to his behaviour while in Ireland”.

And indeed Danny Boy – one of Irish Twitter’s treasures – has listed several examples among hundreds of such mésaventures by dignitaries that were met with sweet forgiveness, unlike our lad’s.

‘We’re all human’

They include the Austrian president found on premises after curfew with a round of pints and the New Zealand health minister breaching lockdown for the beach. The upfront “we’re all human” apology worked for all of them, with the odd small fine or minor demotion. To judge by Ursula von der Leyen’s early demeanour, it would have worked for Phil Hogan too. That was until our own triumvirate and everyone including my very provincial Jack Russell got a sniff that the breaches were multiple, growing and – worse – not being declared.

Many of us watched Hogan’s cringe-inducing, slow-motion act of self-sabotage in real time while nurturing a quiet, sincere hope that von der Leyen would find a solution that would satisfy honour while leaving him in place. Drea appears to think that our ignorant bloodlust blinded us to this.

Many of us watched Hogan's cringe-inducing, slow-motion act of self-sabotage in real time

As well-travelled inhabitants of a small island on an outpost of Europe, the Irish are unusually well-informed. We have skin in the game, lots of it – the peace process, foreign investment, trade, the values expounded by the EU with the common faith that contributing to its budget “is not a commercial transaction [but] is about investing in peace, stability and growth right on your doorstep”. The last line is from a Guardian piece by Drea and is one we cherish. We also know that those values and their indispensable sibling, social solidarity, will never flourish where power sticks its thumb in the people’s eye.

As Henry Mance points out in the Financial Times (let’s call this the non-provincial view), “the Irish Government rejected Mr Hogan’s multiple explanations. He eventually quit. EU honchos aren’t unaccountable after all. Compare that to the UK. Amateur optician Dominic Cummins is still chief adviser to Boris Johnson . . .” Which of these countries is best placed to call for more sacrifices as the virus resurfaces across Europe ? Does social solidarity, frayed as it is, matter a toss ?

Important ‘details’

As for who “forced” Hogans’s resignation? That stomach lurch when von der Leyen read Hogan’s first report and responded that “details are important” and requested a “time line” was a hint. The commission president was not obliged to demand further information or to authorise the publication of the time line. Eurosceptics, used to obstruction and secrecy at home, must have been stunned. Yet there it was, an official document of a top-flight commissioner’s Irish holiday, posted on social media without delay and performing as intended. People examined the dates, checked their memories and rang journalists.

Mr Hogan eventually quit. Amateur optician Dominic Cummins is still chief adviser to Boris Johnson

What should the commission president have done with that fresh information, itself incomplete as it turned out, while retaining her authority and trust in her cabinet in the face of a watching world?

Could she have salvaged the situation with some stern disciplinary action that stopped short of resignation ? What would have sufficed at that point? I for one would like to know.

Drea’s suggestion that it took Hogan’s resignation to highlight Ireland’s grievous healthcare failings versus Europe’s enlightenment is a step too far. A dozy cat following Ireland’s wildly popular general election debates could have recited our health, housing and education record versus Europe’s by rote.

Drea’s final phase – “Dublin has blundered badly. It may take us a generation in Brussels to repair this damage” – is fascinating in its condescension. Us ? The EPP think tank?

Only a dozy cat would deny that Ireland and the EU were lucky to have Phil Hogan in Brussels. But we are lucky too in the calibre of candidates pitching for the job to take his place. Now let us remind ourselves who precisely the Brussels “bubble” is there to serve.