‘GolfGate’ Dinner in Ireland Sparks Political Backlash


LONDON — Close to the rugged Atlantic coast, the Station House Hotel in the Irish town of Clifden offers well-heeled guests a stay that will “live in your memories forever.” But right now, that slogan seems more a threat than a promise for some of Ireland’s political leaders.

Two have already resigned after an outcry over their attendance at a dinner hosted at the hotel last week and organized by the Golf Society of the country’s legislature, the Oireachtas. The gathering took place a day after the government tightened coronavirus restrictions to combat a spike in infections, and has sparked a backlash that has also threatened the jobs of two other public figures.

The fallout from the private gala dinner reverberated well beyond Ireland on Monday as the future of the country’s representative on the European Commission and the European Union’s trade commissioner, Phil Hogan, hangs in the balance following his attendance.

Now known as “GolfGate,” the uproar is being compared to the outcry in Britain over a breach of lockdown restrictions by Dominic Cummings, a close aide to Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Though Mr. Cummings survived that episode, critics said it eroded public trust in the British government and risked undermining compliance with coronavirus rules.

The gathering of around 80 senior Irish officials in County Galway — including some political adversaries — also prompted criticism of the ties that bind the country’s elite.

“It is the optics of a mainly male Golf Society meeting in a hotel. One law for them, and one law for the rest of us,” said Gail McElroy, professor of political science at Trinity College Dublin. Ms. McElroy added that the scandal had stoked the anger of a population exhausted by restrictions imposed to tackle the pandemic.

“This was in the context of people having been very compliant here with the coronavirus regulations, rather more so than in many other countries, “ she said. “Some people didn’t even go to parents’ or grandparents’ funerals.”

The dinner, first reported last week by The Irish Examiner, occurred the day after the Irish government imposed restrictions limiting most gatherings to six people, though there were some exemptions, and hotels were still trying to clarify how to apply the new rules.

But the dinner may have broken a more longstanding pandemic rule in Ireland that limited the size of gatherings to 50 people, though the Golf Society’s defenders have argued weakly that the room was divided by a partition.

The furor prompted the resignation of the agriculture minister, Dara Calleary, who had attended the cabinet meeting at which the new restrictions were announced but joined the dinner at the Station House Hotel nonetheless. He also gave up his post as deputy leader of Fianna Fail, one of Ireland’s two biggest parties.

The deputy chair of the upper house of Ireland’s parliament, Senator Jerry Buttimer, also quit his role.

Among the many critics of the dinner was the leader of Sinn Fein, Mary Lou McDonald. “This isn’t a country club. This is a Parliament, and we are accountable to the people,” she told RTE, the Irish broadcaster.

The crisis was another setback for a new government that had already lost Mr. Calleary’s predecessor as agriculture minister, Barry Cowen. He was forced to quit after just 12 days as a minister because of revelations over a driving incident that happened four years ago. His replacement, Mr. Calleary, lasted 37 days.

A Supreme Court judge and former attorney general, Seamus Woulfe, also attended the dinner and is under pressure to resign.

But attention has focused on the future of Mr. Hogan, the trade commissioner. The prime minister, Micheal Martin, and the deputy prime minister, Leo Varadkar, have both criticized him, though so far he has resisted calls for his resignation.

Mr. Hogan occupies an important role in the European Commission and is engaged in sensitive trade talks with the United States, China and other nations. On Monday, his attendance at the Golf Society dinner was being considered in Brussels by Ursula von der Leyen, the Commission president.

Mr. Hogan issued a “fulsome and profound apology” on Sunday for attending the dinner. “I acknowledge my actions have touched a nerve for the people of Ireland, something for which I am profoundly sorry,” Mr. Hogan wrote on Twitter.

His fate will be decided by Ms. von der Leyen. It is rare, but not unknown, for a European commissioner to be forced out. In 2012, Malta’s former representative, John Dalli, was forced to quit his job as a health commissioner after being accused of improper links to tobacco lobbyists.

While there is strong political pressure in Ireland for Mr. Hogan to step down, some in Dublin think it would be in the country’s best interest for him to stay.

He is well regarded in Brussels, and as trade commissioner holds an influential position that is important to Ireland, particularly after Brexit created tension with London over trade with Northern Ireland. Were he to quit, there is no guarantee of an Irish replacement in that job.

“In the context of global scandals, it is all pretty minimal,” Professor McElroy said of the golf club gathering. “But it is having ramifications at the European Union level as well as domestically.”



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