Monday, 28 Sep 2020

GolfGate: The hotel event causing chaos in Ireland

On Thursday night, a story broke about a dinner at a hotel in the west of Ireland that has thrown the country’s government into turmoil.

First reported in the Irish Examiner, it emerged that more than 80 people had attended an Irish parliamentary golf society event in Clifden, County Galway.

Included on the guest list were a host of high-profile figures from Irish political life.

But the event came just one day after Irish authorities tightened Covid-19 restrictions on gatherings. Gardaí (Irish police) are investigating the event for possible breaches of the regulations.

In the three days since then, two politicians, including a minister, have resigned their positions, and Ireland’s EU Commissioner Phil Hogan – the man who would be leading the EU’s post-Brexit free trade negotiations with the UK – has faced calls to quit.

In addition to this, one of Ireland’s most senior judges has been called on to explain his attendance.

Now, in the wake of #GolfGate, as it has become known, the Dáil (Irish parliament) will return early from its summer break.

So what exactly is going on? And how did one gathering cause this much disruption?

What happened?

The Oireachtas [Irish parliament] Golf Society’s dinner, which took place on Wednesday at the Station House Hotel in Clifden, was attended by a host of senior politicians and notable public figures.

The timing of the event has been of particular interest.

It took place the day after the Irish government changed its guidelines in the face of an increasing number of Covid-19 cases.

With the tightening restrictions, the number of people allowed to attend indoor gatherings was reduced from 50 to six, with some exceptions.

Were Covid-19 regulations broken?

That will be a matter for An Garda Síochána (Irish police) to decide. It has launched an investigation.

James Sweeney, from the Station House Hotel where the event was held, told Irish state broadcaster RTÉ he had checked with the Irish Hotels Federation to ensure the event complied with regulations.

He said he was told it would be, if the guests were in two separate rooms, with fewer than 50 people in each.

Under the previous rules, up to 50 people had been able to gather for an indoor event.

In addition to this, there is also an issue about how many were seated to a table.

Under the old rules, a maximum number of six people were allowed to sit at a table.

The Irish Examiner reported that the table plan listed 10 people to each table.

Who is involved?

A number of Irish politicians and high-profile figures find themselves on shaky ground due to their attendance.

The first casualty was Agriculture Minister Dara Calleary, who had issued an apology within a couple of hours of the story breaking on Thursday.

After this, pressure mounted, with reports that Mr Calleary had met with Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Micheál Martin.

He had initially been pencilled in for an appearance on RTÉ’s flagship news programme Morning Ireland on Friday morning – but this was cancelled and before the programme was finished, Mr Calleary had resigned.

Minister for Agriculture @daracalleary was scheduled to appear on our programme this morning to address the Clifden function he attended in breach of government guidelines. A spokesperson has informed the programme that the Minister is no longer "immediately available".

End of Twitter post by @morningireland

Since the event Jerry Buttimer, the leas-chathaoirleach (deputy chairman) of the Irish senate, has also resigned.

My letter to Cathaoirleach of the Seanad @SenatorMarkDaly pic.twitter.com/m0hCqyZJC8

End of Twitter post by @jerrybuttimer

Supreme Court judge Séamus Woulfe, who has faced criticism due to his role in giving legal advice to the government, has also apologised for his attendance.

The other person facing calls to quit is EU trade commissioner Phil Hogan.

While not currently in government, Mr Hogan was put forward by Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael-led government for a position with the EU – then as the commissioner for agriculture and rural development.

His role as trade commissioner, which he has held since last year, means this controversy could have ramifications that go beyond Ireland’s shores, as he would lead free trade negotiations with the UK post-Brexit.

On Sunday morning, Mr Hogan issued a “fulsome and profound” apology for attending the event – but has not indicated that he will step down.

A spokesperson for the trade commissioner confirmed to RTÉ on Sunday he would not be resigning.

In addition to these individuals, a number of other politicians and local councillors were in attendance and have apologised.

Why is this a big deal?

The event has come at a time when the Republic of Ireland has seen an increase in coronavirus cases.

On Saturday 15 August, prior to all of the controversy, it reported 200 new cases in one day – the largest number for a single day since May.

The numbers were described by Taoiseach Micheál Martin as “deeply concerning”, while Ireland’s acting chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn said the phased reopening has resulted in some people “acting recklessly”.

In addition to this, provisional dates for lifting certain lockdown measures have been pushed back as case numbers have worsened.

Plans to open pubs, which had been pencilled in for 10 August, are now set to be reviewed again next week.

What will happen now?

An investigation into the event will be carried out by gardaí (Irish police) and the political fallout looks likely to continue.

On Sunday, the Irish government issued a statement confirming parliament would be returning early from its summer break.

While it did not say this was explicitly down to the controversy around the event, opposition parties have said the action is necessary to bolster confidence in the government response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Leader of the Irish Labour Party Alan Kelly said it was “not acceptable” for there to be a delay in government returning.

“Why can’t the Dáil be sitting on Tuesday? We need a new agriculture minister to deal with the outbreaks in meat plants,” he said.

“We also need to deal with all the confusion regarding restrictions and obviously we need to deal with the events that have gone on over the last week.”

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said the Dáil needed to “begin the process of rebuilding public confidence”, while Catherine Murphy TD, co-leader of the Social Democrats, said there was “too much at stake for the government to be waiting around”.

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