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Kathy Sheridan: Brussels bubble misses the point on Phil Hogan’s resignation

Lengthy Libération interview with former EU commissioner left out pertinent details

A history of politicians doing the decent thing by resigning would be short. A history of those who resigned with a sense of their legacy as decent exemplars of public service would be shorter.

Back in 2002 a politician who had served in high ministerial office and failed to meet certain targets tendered this resignation letter:

“. . . In many ways, I feel I have achieved more in the first [more junior] job than I have in the second. I’ve learned what I’m good at and also what I’m less good at. I’m good at dealing with the issues and in communicating to the teaching profession. I am less good at strategic management of a huge department and I am not good at dealing with the modern media. All this has meant that with some of the recent situations I have been involved in, I have not felt I have been as effective as I should be, or as effective as you need me to be.”

No prizes for guessing that the writer was a woman. Estelle Morris, a British secretary of state for education, resigned for not having "done the job as well as I should have done". Weird.

Resignations are often regarded as a sign of failure in our political culture. In fact, they can reflect the best of it.

Genuine error

On budget day in February 1995 an adviser to a junior minister in the department of finance mistakenly faxed advance details of excise duty increases to newsdesks. No one seriously believed that the junior minister, Phil Hogan, had been stupid enough to "leak" top-secret budget details with his name attached. It was a genuine error.

Far more pertinently, the details took nearly a week to emerge, after tortuous, incomplete and evasive explanations, and repeated, public requests for further information

Yet within 24 hours, Hogan had tendered his resignation. Some 27 years on and in light of his Golfgate travails, Hogan’s 1995 statement to the Dáil bears a second look. It included an “unreserved apology” for the “embarrassment”, followed by a lengthy, detailed description of how the error occurred and ended with his resignation. “The decision to resign is entirely my own,” he added.

Note that line. Phil Hogan was asserting firmly that he was his own man, not resigning at anyone else's behest. In August 2020, the same Phil Hogan very deliberately echoed that line in an RTÉ interview following his resignation as EU commissioner. "I resigned myself. I'm somebody that has been a public servant for almost 40 years. I know how to take responsibility, in fact I've done it before, 25 years ago. So nobody has to tell me, at the end of the day, when the experience that I've gained over that number of years has led me politically to believe what is the right thing to do."

But this time his tour de l'Irlande that culminated in the Clifden dinner was down to him alone. Far more pertinently, the details took nearly a week to emerge, after tortuous, incomplete and evasive explanations, and repeated, public requests for further information from Ursula von der Leyen, as many of us looked on, in real time, slack-jawed.

Did Phil Hogan break the law? He was never charged and it was never the point

To discard the context of repeated pandemic lockdowns around Hogan’s freewheeling tour de l’Irlande and dismiss the public response as the implicitly hysterical “court of public opinion” is a rather detached take, to put it charitably.

Somehow those rather pertinent details failed to make it into his lengthy Libération interview on Monday. In short, Hogan was condemned "by a public opinion tribunal, not by a tribunal implementing the law", according to the writer, Jean Quatremer. The article's newsworthiness lay in the hint that Hogan might seek compensation for the manner of his exit from his EU post, which was hardly hot news.

Confident predictions

Only a few weeks after the Clifden dinner, Eoin Drea of the centre-right Martens research institute in Brussels was confidently predicting that more would appear shortly about Von der Leyen's handling of the case, "particularly regarding the lack of due process employed by the Commission President. It's also a legal issue as per the EU Treaties."

When a Twitter poster suggested that Quatremer had ignored local context, Quatremer replied mystifyingly that he knew “the story of the privatisation of water . . . But, in this case, Hogan was no longer Irish, but European, and he did not break any law. Court of public opinion or court of law, you have to choose . . . I base myself on the judgment of the Court of Galway”.

It all explains much of the chatter within the Brussels bubble. Quatremer’s piece led several European journalists to take the same line: that an Irish court had cleared Hogan, that he hadn’t broken any Covid rules when participating in a charity dinner. Perhaps they should be examining why the EU appears to have no speedy, efficient procedure to deal with a powerful commissioner whose behaviour falls short of criminality but is clearly injurious to the public good.

Did Phil Hogan break the law? He was never charged and it was never the point. His position was entirely different to the organisers of the event. The question is, how low has the bar fallen when a court acquittal by proxy is deemed synonymous with honourable public service.