Monday, 22 September 2014

The real Phil Hogan

Criticism of the Government’s nomination of Phil Hogan as Ireland’s member of the EU Commission has tended to focus on his lobbying in 2012 to prevent a Traveller family being given access to social housing. On those grounds Nessa Childers, an independent member of the EU Parliament, reasonably described the nomination as a “step backwards for equality.”

The other main strand of criticism concerns his agreement on bloated consultancy payments for the establishment of Irish Water, an issue that Sinn Féin in particular is emphasising. Again, the criticism is legitimate and important, as is the fact that he spent the summer appointing former Fine Gael and Labour Party councillors to state boards, and that he quashed inquiries into planning irregularities, including in his own fiefdom of Co. Carlow, when he took office as minister for the environment.

An article in Irish Left Review by Andy Storey points out that the problem with Hogan goes well beyond anti-Traveller racism, the wasting of public money, the dishing out of sinecures to political cronies, and taking a relaxed approach to dodgy planning. Most politicians engage in all the above. Hogan’s real importance lies in his being a prime example of the noxious nexus between political and corporate power in Ireland.

The Moriarty Tribunal in 2011 concluded that the former minister Michael Lowry had “an insidious and pervasive influence” over the awarding of a mobile phone licence to Denis O’Brien’s Esat Digifone consortium; in fact the tribunal described Lowry’s conduct as “profoundly corrupt to a degree that was nothing short of breath-taking.” In July 2010 Lowry was an honoured guest at Phil Hogan’s fiftieth birthday party, and only days after the publication of the Moriarty report Hogan had an official meeting with Lowryallegedly to discuss unrelated matters.

But then, this should not be so surprising. Hogan has form here. As Jody Corcoran has reported, “Hogan was personally engaged in the extraction of at least two significant sums of money from O’Brien, or his companies or associates, for Fine Gael at or around the time of the granting of the licence.” Coincidentally, Siteserv—a company owned by O’Brien that had substantial debts owed to Anglo-Irish Bank, now owned by the state (i.e. you and me) and now written offhas won some of the contracts for installing water meterswater charges, of course, being another of Hogan’s legacies.

O’Brien, who Hogan “ran into” at the Mount Juliet Golf and Country Club in March, is not the only controversial businessman Hogan has been associated with. In the 2000s Michael Fingleton, then managing director of Irish Nationwide Building Society, personally approved a loan of €450,000 to Hogan to allow him buy a house in Dublin 4, with Hogan having to repay only the interest on the loan for a decade. Fingleton then lent him €430,000 to buy a Portuguese holiday home, on the same generous repayment terms. A report in the Irish Independent on the matter charmingly described the second loan as having been processed with “what appears to have been ... minimal paperwork.” How probable was it that we would ever have had a serious banking inquiry when a senior Government minister had personally profited from the shady practices that created the property and banking crisis in the first place?

In February 2009 Hogan declined to follow his party leader’s example and take a 5 per cent cut in his salary of €110,000, stating that “my personal circumstances don’t allow that at the moment.” (God knows how dire his personal circumstances would have been if he had been obliged to meet normal repayments on his property loans.)

In April 2012 a Kilkenny woman texted Hogan to complain of the hardship the household charge was causing her, to which Hogan responded: “Would you ever relax and feed the children.”

The man is demonstrably a hypocrite and a boor (appropriate enough qualifications for an EU Commissioner these days). Even more importantly, he is the embodiment of the crony-capitalist links between business and politics in Ireland, links that are forged and greased through political donations, personal favours and friendships, opaque meetings, and secret business dealings.

In that sense Hogan is the perfect representative of the Irish elite and an eminently apt person to fulfil that representative role in Brussels.

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