These are indeed the strangest of times. We live in an era now of heightened sensibilities, social distancing, thinking twice about our movements and actions, covering up, and bumping elbows. The normal conventions of life before COVID have all gone by the wayside. And for elected public representatives across Europe, this pandemic is a time of being held accountable each and every day – as distinct from each and every election day four of five years apart.
And if there was an element of ‘do as I say rather than do as I do’, this is indeed it. And nothing has brought this home more so than an innocuous golf club dinner in a quiet corner of western Ireland.
Every year now for decades, the members of the Oireachtas Golf Club gather at a different course around Ireland, play their rounds, tell tall tales and in short order discuss the unofficial business of the Irish government. Oireachtas, you see, is Gaelic for “Government”, the golfing society for members of the Irish parliament – the lower house or “Dail”, and the upper house or “Senad”. Politics is forgotten at these annual gatherings, differences are put aside, and the only thing that matters is how well someone played during the day’s outing. Normal things in normal times.
But these are far from normal times, and these things are not allowed.
Like pretty much every corner of the globe, Ireland has been struggling with coronavirus. When the pandemic hit, there was no government. An inconclusive general election in February left the country of 4.5 million with a fractured parliament. Ministers were acting in a caretaking capacity when tasked with taking care of a nation and medical system that might all too easily be overwhelmed by coronavirus. The Taoiseach – Prime Minister – Leo Varadkar, a fully qualified medical doctor, was quick to understand the potential of this pandemic, took decisive action and shut Ireland down a full week before the government in London was moved to do the same. Varadkar even went back to work as a doctor one day a week to help the overstretched medical system. The measures worked. For nine weeks of the strictest lockdowns and limits on personal movements, Ireland managed to flatten its curve, preventing the virus from overwhelming the medical system. Yes, some 1,500 people have lost their lives so far, but it could have been worse. Much worse.
Uneasy coalition in Ireland
And as the pandemic eased a little, the political parties of Ireland managed to cobble together a new coalition government, with Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin taking over as Taoiseach, Varadkar becoming his Deputy.
But it has been an uneasy relationship, this coalition of Varadkar’s 38 Fine Gael deputies and Martin’s 39. They hold power too with 10 Green Party deputies.
So when the Oireachtas golf club got together in Clifton last week, it was supposed to be a day to forget politics. They did. But the 81 people gathered there also forgot about the pandemic – and the strict rules that apply to gatherings. Only 50 are allowed to gather in one place, these lawmakers told the Irish people. Sure the 81 tried to divide the main room into two using a separating curtain – they might as well have tried to stop the flood of public damnation when the story broke by sticking their finger into the proverbial dyke.
He [Phil Hogan] tried to say that he was exempt from the quarantine requirements on the basis of his position. Then it emerged he had been stopped by Irish police while driving and using a mobile phone.
So far, the Minister of Agriculture – himself a replacement for the previous holder who was forced to resign after two weeks on the job in the new government over a scandal – has been forced to resign. A smattering of deputies and senators have lost their party whips. A supreme court judge is under pressure to step aside, and others who gathered there have been forced to make a series of contrite apologies.
The deputy speaker of the upper house too has resigned.
But the biggest scalp of “golf gate” so far has been the resignation of Phil Hogan, Ireland’s European Union Commissioner – he held the trade portfolio in Brussels in the cabinet-like body that is responsible for the day-to-day running of the EU.
Hogan episode a stain on Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin
Big Phil did not go easily. He tried to say that he was exempt from the quarantine requirements on the basis of his position. Then it emerged he had been stopped by Irish police while driving and using a mobile phone. He got off then with a warning – which has also raised questions as to whether he was equally treated before the law. Would you or get a warning or a stiff fine if we were to commit the same offence?
His explanation stretched credulity to breaking point and didn’t cut it with Ursula von der Layen, the president of the EU Commission. The phone lines between Brussels and Dublin were burning up until there was no more wriggle room for Hogan.
This whole episode has been highly embarrassing for Martin, a leader who promised that his administration would raise the bar when it came to ethics. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case, and Varadkar has let it be known he doesn’t see any long-term future for the coalition government – it has blown the hard-earned credulity and trust it built up during the initial weeks of this corona crisis.
The parliament has been recalled to discuss golf gate next week and there may very well be a confidence vote in the new government. Whether it wins or loses is a moot point at this stage. For Irish voters – those who have lost relatives, those who have lost jobs, those who have given up and missed too much over these past months, there is a palpable anger that these parliamentarians and decision makers acted in such an irresponsible and hypocritical manner. This is a storm in a tee cup that won’t easily go away.