'Crass' Phil is a sensitive soul underneath all the attitude
PHIL Hogan has had his share of banana skins in more than 20 years in politics. When he was a junior minister in Finance back in 1995, he was forced to resign after his office leaked the Budget to journalists before it was announced.
This embarrassment didn't damage his standing in Fine Gael. He went on to become chairman of the party, director of successive elections and today is regarded as one of the Taoiseach's key allies.
His streetwise, backroom tactics famously cowed the cappuccino set following their feeble attempt at ousting Enda Kenny as leader. Hogan has deployed the same bullishness to push through various unpopular policies in his department. It hasn't always worked. He was forced into various U-turns when rural Ireland revolted at his introduction of a new inspection regime for septic tanks.
He unveiled the €100 household charge last year to widespread opposition. Confusion dogged the charge for months, but Hogan railroaded it through, prompting Sinn Fein's Mary Lou McDonald to accuse him of threatening, frightening and bullying the public into paying it.
Hogan's cause wasn't helped by revelations in the Sunday Independent that at the time he was exhorting the country to pay the charge, he was privately refusing to pay the service charges on his penthouse apartment in Portugal. He complained that he wasn't happy with the service.
Hogan's strident style has alienated even his own constituents. At a homecoming for the county's All-Ireland hurling championships, he was booed as he was welcomed on stage ahead of the team's arrival. Hogan was reportedly unperturbed, laughing and joking with dignitaries. But according to one source, the experience left him smarting. "He's actually more sensitive than you would think. Being booed at the Kilkenny All-Ireland homecoming, that wounded him to the core. That was nasty."
For a sensitive soul, the text he allegedly sent to one of his constituents who complained about the household charge was crude. She wrote that children were going hungry as families struggled to pay the charge. A text allegedly from the Minister for the Environment replied: "Would u ever relax. And feed the children."
There was more embarrassment when a Fine Gael party loyalist, Anne O'Connell, complained about his response after she challenged him on the household charge. She said she hoped he wouldn't be screwing property owners. He replied: "I have no problem screwing you. Hasn't Mairtin [Mac Cormaic, her partner] been
screwing you for years." Mr Hogan later said it was a joke.
Such crass gaffes have done little to endear him to the public – either nationally or in his Carlow Kilkenny constituency.
"He is in real trouble in the constituency. He's always had an attitude but people really dislike the sort of 'go home missus and feed the children' text he sent," said one source.
Within the party, sources say, he's now seen as a "messer" rather than an "enforcer''.
''The new TDs see himself and James Reilly, the Health Minister, as being the weakest links in the Cabinet. They don't know anything about the past," said one source.
He has friends in the party: Paul Kehoe, Jerry Buttimer, Paudie Coffey, Joe Carey, Frances Fitzgerald, Pat O'Neil. "Beyond that he has few IOUs to call upon. A lot of promises were made in that leadership heave and few were kept," said the source.
While publicly Hogan has the staunch support of the Taoiseach, some are sceptical about just how close the two men really are.
"They're not as close as you would think. Don't forget Enda sacked Phil as director of elections after the 2007 election right in front of the parliamentary party. Poor Phil didn't see it coming until Enda said he would have bet his house on FG winning two seats in Carlow Kilkenny and sacked poor Phil on the spot."
Another said: "Enda feels he doesn't owe Phil anything. The Taoiseach doesn't like being reminded that anyone other than himself was responsible for his glorious progress."
Phil Hogan sometimes comes across as a political relic from another era. "A bit like one of those FF ministers in the 60s or the 70s," said a source.
"Phil has reached the stage where you can't disagree with him on anything. Even if you contradict him on football or something minor he'll just get up and walk away. He should be enjoying being a minister but he's a troubled soul really."