Stephen Collins: Coalition appeased lynch mob over Hogan

Government casts more doubt on ability to lead amid Covid-19 and Brexit challenges

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar should have been able to take a broader perspective but instead he led the chorus demanding that Phil Hogan should go.  Photograph: Fran Veale

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar should have been able to take a broader perspective but instead he led the chorus demanding that Phil Hogan should go. Photograph: Fran Veale

 

A spineless Government running scared in the face of an hysterical media has done serious damage to the national interest by forcing the resignation of Phil Hogan from one of the most powerful positions in the European Union. With the Brexit talks about to enter their final and critical stage the timing could not have been worse.

It is not simply that Ireland has lost a powerful voice at the centre of one of the three powerful trade blocs on the globe. The way the Government went about getting rid of Hogan by publicly demanding that European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen sack him has damaged the country’s credibility with the commission at a time when we need its support and understanding for Irish concerns on the Brexit trade deal.

Of course Hogan was enormously foolish to attend the Oireachtas golf society dinner and he compounded the error by flouting the rules on quarantine, however inadvertently. The scale of the punishment, though, bears no proportion to the crime.

The personal disaster for Hogan may not be a concern for most people but the negative implication for the country is something that should have been weighed in the balance over the past week by the people who head the Government. Instead their main concern was to appease the lynch mob.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has some excuse, in that he felt obliged to dismiss one of his own Fianna Fáil ministers, Dara Calleary, from the Cabinet for his attendance at the golf dinner and it would have been difficult for him to defend a Fine Gael commissioner.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar was not under similar internal political pressure and should have been able to take a broader perspective in his approach to the problem. Instead he led the chorus demanding that Hogan should go.

Media leak

One of the interesting aspects of the affair was the way in which information conveyed to Minister for Justice Helen McEntee by Garda Commissioner Drew Harris about Hogan’s caution by a garda for using his mobile phone while driving was leaked to the media after it was shared with other members of the Government.

Back in 2014 there was a very different media reaction when then minister for justice Alan Shatter disclosed information provided to him by then commissioner Martin Callinan that TD Mick Wallace had been similarly cautioned for using his mobile phone. That episode provided further ammunition for those already demanding both of them should leave their positions and, ultimately, they both did. After Hogan’s resignation, some in Fine Gael are recalling how Varadkar played an important role in publicly piling the pressure on Shatter.

Sinn Féin naturally took the opportunity to join the chorus demanding Hogan’s resignation for breaching Covid guidelines, utterly undaunted by the controversy over the party’s approach - especially that of Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill - in attending the funeral of IRA strongman Bobby Storey in Belfast in June.

Hypocrisy

Last Monday, Sinn Féin spokesman on finance Pearse Doherty dismissed any suggestion of hypocrisy during an RTÉ interview and claimed that the Covid regulations had been fully observed at the Storey funeral.

This was patently untrue and there are even photographs on the website of the party’s Lucan branch showing two Dublin Sinn Féin members with their arms around Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill at the funeral.

There were some half-hearted calls by unionist politicians for O’Neill to resign but she batted them away and the media showed little interest in pursuing her. The contrast with the hunt for Hogan’s head was stark but, whatever else, it showed that the Sinn Féin leadership has the backbone which is sadly lacking in the Government parties in Dublin.

The one politician to emerge with his reputation enhanced from the whole sorry affair was Fianna Fáil TD Jim O’Callaghan. Interviewed on RTÉ last Sunday, he calmly put the case for why Hogan and Supreme Court judge Séamus Woulfe should not have to resign their posts for their admittedly foolish attendance at the golf dinner.

Fair hearing

Chief Justice Frank Clarke has instituted an inquiry into Woulfe’s attendance which is being conducted by retired chief justice Susan Denham. Whatever the outcome, he will at least be given the opportunity to state his case to the inquiry and can expect a fair hearing, something denied to those who have been forced to resign for their attendance at the same dinner.

One way or another, the whole affair has done further damage to the standing of the Government and its ability to lead the country in a time of unprecedented crisis. Big decisions about how to get back to some kind of normality will have to be made in the coming months.

The first issue facing the Government is whether the current Covid restrictions can be continued without destroying a whole swathe of the economy – and after that it will have to face up to serious choices in how to scale back the enormous extra borrowing necessitated by the emergency.

Going on its record, the Coalition is ill-equipped to deal with the anger and controversy that will inevitably erupt whatever course it takes. But never mind, Sinn Féin is waiting in the wings, only too willing to take over the reins of power when the opportunity arises.

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