Golfgate is a story of ruling class entitlement

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Irish EU Commissioner Paul Hogan resigned on Thursday, the latest casualty of a golf outing that showed how the class system works in Ireland. A look at an ongoing story by Paulie Doyle, for Tribune magazine.

 

On Saturday, August 15th, a group of 51 young people headed for a brunch event in Berlin D2, a bar just off Dublin’s Dame Street. As the day stretched on, attendees began to ignore social distancing guidelines while filming themselves and posting it on social media. Journalists reported on the footage – including images of bar staff pouring drinks directly into customers mouths – and the event’s organisers soon found themselves faced with a furious public, who in recent weeks have grown frustrated with a spike in Covid-19 across the country. That same day, the Department of Health confirmed 200 cases of the virus, the highest since the beginning of May.

The steadily rising R-number seen in Ireland throughout July and August prompted the government to implement tight new measures last Tuesday. These include a limit of six people at gatherings in private residences, and an order for businesses to work from home unless absolutely necessary. Legislation is also expected to pass through the Dáil in coming weeks granting the Gardaí powers to enter private dwellings without a warrant. This will allow them to break up “house parties,” which government officials have insisted are a public health hazard that necessitate the curtailment of civil liberties.

“Covid loves to party,” said then Irish Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Dara Calleary, explaining the rationale behind the latest restrictions, during an appearance on Ireland’s national broadcaster. The next day, Calleary was among a group who enjoyed their own get-together. 81 members of Ireland’s ruling class – TDs, senators, senior lobbyists, bankers, judges – descended on Station House Hotel, in Clifden, Co. Galway, for an event organised by the Oireachtas Golf Society, which was celebrating 50 years of existence.

Special interests and government officials rubbing shoulders in a country club-type setting would be objectionable in normal circumstances, but the gala added a new level of offence: attendees crammed into a function room in direct contravention to the guidelines a number of them had published just 24 hours previously.

Two reporters from the Irish Examiner ran a story about the occasion and its cartoonishly bad optics, prompting national outrage and widespread embarrassment across an already scandal-ridden government. Calleary apologised and stepped down from his position, marking the second resignation of an agriculture minister in less than two months – his predecessor, Barry Cowen, left the post when it emerged that he had failed to disclose a drunk-driving conviction to Fianna Fáil party leadership. Meanwhile, fellow attendee Jerry Butimer, the Leas-Chathaoirleach [Deputy-Chairperson] of Seanad Éireann, resigned, too. This was accompanied by a lineup of councillors and senators losing their party whip.

At the time of writing, EU Commissioner for Trade Phil Hogan – one of the most powerful political figures in Europe – is under pressure to bow out, with Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar (who were not present at the event), issuing a statement asking him to “consider his position.” Not only was Hogan in attendance, he was pulled over by Gardaí en route to the hotel for using his phone while driving after failing to quarantine upon arriving in Ireland from Brussels.

Already, ‘Golfgate’ has humiliated Ireland on the international stage and all but destroyed the credibility of one of the most precarious and unpopular administrations in Irish history.

COALITION OF CHAOS

This latest scandal comes at a particularly unfortunate time for a government that has been desperate to divert attention from its failure to contain Covid-19.

At the beginning of this month, outbreaks in four separate meat processing plants prompted a regional lockdown in counties Kildare, Offaly, and Laois. Newspapers later reported that the relevant authorities had carried out only a small number of unannounced inspections of the factories in question. It’s fair to suggest that this hands-off approach may have had something to do with the government’s failure to include trade union members in July’s Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 Response.

Several workers anonymously told the media that factory owners were prioritising profits over health and safety. Meanwhile, Direct Provision centres – overwhelmingly substandard, privately-run accommodation which hosts asylum seekers, who can wait up to a decade to have their case reviewed – saw clusters too.

None of this was surprising. Publicans, landlords, lobbyists, and other captains of industry have helped the government draft public health policies alongside the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET), resulting in confusing, often contradictory guidelines.

Towards the end of June, mere days after the Leaving Certificate examinations were cancelled for public health reasons, thousands of pubs were given permission to reopen on the condition that they sold ‘substantial’ meals of nine euro or more, as though a plate of food might somehow­ shield punters from the virus.

Guidelines published last week were equally incoherent. Attending a wedding with 50 guests was permissible, but having seven visitors to your home was not. Masks had to be worn on short shopping trips but sitting in a restaurant and eating a meal was fine. Travel was not recommended but a list of ‘Green’ countries were safe to visit and did not require self-isolation upon return to Ireland.

Confidence is low in the government’s ability to handle its next difficult task – schools are due to begin reopening on August 27th. Many parents and teachers fear that outbreaks like those seen in Europe will occur, which government officials have pre-emptively conceded is a likelihood.

In a disastrous interview given days before ‘Golfgate,’ Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly compared the reopening to other activities which carry “inherent risk,” such as driving a car, playing sports, and jumping on a trampoline.

Each coalition partner in Ireland’s ramshackle government has brought its own defect to the 33rd Dáil: Fianna Fáil’s inability to govern after almost a decade in opposition; the Green Party’s self-serving delusions about climate solutions ‘within the system’; Fine Gael’s Thatcherite disdain for the poor. The result has been a clumsy attempt at painting bike lanes over a crumbling establishment, with little regard for the crises impacting ordinary people.

Last month, former Taoiseach and current Tánaiste Leo Varadkar announced that representatives from the Department of Social Protection would be standing watch at Dublin Airport. Anyone found travelling abroad while in receipt of the weekly Pandemic Unemployment Payment stood to lose their income, as they would be no longer “available for work.” A week or so beforehand, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan took a nap in parliament, only waking up to vote against a living wage and rights for the precariously employed.

Events like this have taken place against a backdrop of hotels and co-living accommodation being constructed at the expense of public housing, while international capital continues to use Ireland as a money-laundering service – last month, the government won an appeal against a European Commission ruling which stated that Apple owed the Irish state over €13 billion in tax.

On Sunday evening, the government issued a statement confirming that the Dáil, which is currently on summer recess, would reconvene early in response to Golfgate.

It is likely that more people will resign, but no amount of resignations will scrub from the popular imagination the image of a cosy circle of politicians, businessmen and civil servants breaking rules that they themselves set for a population who have had to curtail their lives so much in recent months. The contrast between families who have been forced to miss the funerals of their loved ones and a ruling elite which wouldn’t even countenance missing the anniversary of their golf club is hard to ignore.

As a Garda investigation into the events of August 19th begins and further salacious information emerges – such as Taoiseach Micheál Martin sponsoring a raffle prize – one thing is certain: so long as Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Greens continue in office, the party will very much go on for the class they represent.

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