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'I've no interest in leading Fine Gael' - Phil Hogan

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Phil Hogan and Miriam Donohoe at the Design Centre on the Parade in Kilkenny

Phil Hogan and Miriam Donohoe at the Design Centre on the Parade in Kilkenny

Dylan Vaughan

The Design Centre on the Parade in Kilkenny

The Design Centre on the Parade in Kilkenny

Dylan Vaughan

Frank Flannery and Phil Hogan during talks in 2011 on forming a coalition

Frank Flannery and Phil Hogan during talks in 2011 on forming a coalition

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Phil Hogan and Miriam Donohoe at the Design Centre on the Parade in Kilkenny

The Kilkenny deputy tells Miriam Donohoe why his focus is now on his daunting new role as a European Commissioner

The tall, distinctive figure of Phil Hogan appears in the buzzing Kilkenny Design Centre restaurant in the heart of his home town, bang on time for our lunch date. The Tullaroan native greets several constituents by name before taking his seat and flashing one of his mischievous grins. He reminds me he hasn't done a lengthy print interview since 2011. Not surprising given that he has had a fractious relationship with the press during his lengthy and often controversial political career, particularly since he became Minister for the Environment in 2011.

Big Phil, as he is known, is moving to new pastures, leaving domestic politics behind after 32 years to become Ireland's next EU Commissioner. By the time this interview is published, the 6ft 5ins Fine Gael stalwart is likely to know what portfolio he has been given by new Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker.

Enda Kenny has made it clear Ireland wants a "serious" brief, with agriculture or trade mentioned. Phil would be delighted with either but says his preference is agriculture, given that he comes from a rural constituency with a strong background in farming.

There has been a lot of speculation about the move of Fine Gael's robust main 'fixer' and Kenny's right-hand man to Europe. For three years the 'enforcer' pushed through hugely unpopular measures including water charges, the household charge and the local property tax.

Big Phil was seen by the public as the villain who took money directly out of people's pockets. Was the Fine Gael strategy to get him out of the way in advance of the next general election?

Not at all, says Hogan, who insists he was offered the job because of his experience and track record, a man who gets things done.

He acknowledges the measure he introduced have been very tough on people - but he doesn't apologise for doing what had to be done. "I remember the day we went into government. It was a depressing state of affairs. Hard decisions had to be made due to the agreement with the Troika and we have turned the corner now, thankfully. Not everyone sees that yet but they will in time," he says as he tucks into hot chicken sides with vegetables in the restaurant opposite Kilkenny Castle in the medieval city.

The move to Brussels will be a huge change for the 54-year-old Kilkenny man, a separated father-of-one grown-up son. One challenge will be the language. He hasn't spoken French since secondary school. "I am sure I will have to learn a bit of that," he says.

Hogan is taking nothing for granted, mindful that the job still has to be ratified at hearings at the end of this month. "I am not surprised Sinn Féin and Ming Flanagan are opposing my nomination. I don't agree with their politics or their policies so if they supported me I would be very worried. I will study the job specification and I will go before the relevant European Parliament committee."

The biggest challenge for the new Commission is jobs and growth and that will be Hogan's focus. "Europe lost a lot of its competitiveness over the last few years and the fiscal crisis has not helped. The big challenge is to get people back to work."

He bristles when asked about the generous salary that comes with the job, over €300,000 in the first year including benefits. In his typical, no holds-barred style, he says he never ceases to be amazed at the obsession people have about politicians pay and remuneration.

"The salary I will get is fixed by the European Parliament and Commission and that's the pay for the job and I will accept whatever pay is offered."

He refuses to talk about his own personal financial affairs and bank loans which were the subject of media attention. "This is private and personal and are not the business of newspapers," he retorts.

Phil says he still has "an excellent relationship with the Taoiseach". With the departure also of another long-standing and key Fine Gael adviser, party trustee Frank Flannery, following the controversy over the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) probing of fees paid to him for consultancy work for Rehab, is there not a huge gap now in the organisation?

"No. Enda Kenny is fortunate he has a good team of people around him. There is a great organisation in Fine Gael and it is in a healthy state financially."

He does not want to comment on Frank Flannery's situation as he says it is likely to be before the courts. "I am very friendly with him and he has made a huge contribution to FG over 40 years. He has to deal with a number of issues now. He took the honourable course in stepping down to ensure no embarrassment to the Taoiseach or Fine Gael."

Should he have appeared before the Public Accounts Committee? "Frank never said he wouldn't go before it. He said he would when they provided reasons and proved it was in their remit."

Another leading light lost to Fine Gael is Deputy Lucinda Creighton, former Minister of State for European Affairs, who was expelled from the party after voting against the Government on the abortion legislation.

"Deputy Creighton and others made a decision around the legislation. The Taoiseach made it clear if they were to vote a certain way there would be consequences and they were followed through.

"But we can see now the regulations the Government brought in are already working," says Hogan, referring to the recent case of a young woman who claims she became pregnant after being raped, but who was refused an abortion when she was suicidal. She went on thirst and hunger strike when she was told she could not have an abortion and the HSE obtained a High Court order to rehydrate her. She later had her pregnancy delivered by Caesarean section at 24 weeks.

But what about her claims of the trauma she experienced in the build-up to the Caesarean and that her cries for help were ignored, I ask.

"We don't know the full details and there has been no full report yet. All I know is that the regulations that were brought in worked in so far as a baby was born and the mother is safe."

The former Director of Elections for Fine Gael admits he will miss the cut and thrust of the next election but if his advice and opinion is sought in a private capacity, he will be glad to give it. "I will continue to be a member of FG and I expect I will be able to give my tuppence worth and advice from time to time to candidates to party generally."

The election will be a choice between Fine Gael and Labour, and Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin. "It will be down to trust. Do you trust the people who have sorted out the country or do you want to put your trust again in the people who caused the problems."

Hogan steered through some of the toughest policies in the last three years and as a result found himself the target of many protests around the country. He is no stranger to controversy. He resigned as Minister for State at the Department of Finance in 1995 after budget details were leaked by an official to the Evening Herald.

He has taken it all in his stride in typical laid-back Hogan fashion - but doesn't hold back on his view of some elements of the media, particularly the "UK-based media". As well as attacks on his policies there have been personal attacks with one newspaper publishing pictures of him with a female press officer in a bar in Doha where they were attending a climate change conference.

"Some of the publications were taking me on personally rather than politically. I was very unhappy with the type of personal abuse and attacks. A lot of the tough proposals required of this Government didn't suit some British-based publications who are anti-Europe and certainly anti this government. For some reason or other they wished to destabilise the Irish state, which is unhelpful to the body politic and the Irish people.

"It was very hurtful for me to have to sue some publications and TV stations, something I thought I would never have to do. They are issues before the courts so I won't comment further."

He insists there was no choice in relation to some of the tough measures he introduced. Household charges, local property tax and the water charges were all necessary to get the country back on track. There were also policies which he did have a choice over, including the building regulations which mean we won't have a repeat of the Priory Hall disaster and the sweeping local government reform which saw the abolition of town councils, saving €450m over three years.

He rejects suggestions that Irish Water is another costly bureaucratic monster. "Irish Water is essential," he says. "There was lack of investment and co-ordination in the local government system, even in good times. Irish Water was established as a subsidiary of Bord Gáis and the salaries and grades are synonymous with what is being paid by Bord Gáis as a commercial semi-state company. We are actually saving €18m by having Irish Water as a subsidiary of Bord Gáis."

He predicts that by the end of 2015 people will be looking for water meters to be installed rather than having their water charge assessed "because this is the fairest way".

Despite his passion for Ireland, and Kilkenny, Phil is adamant that he won't be doing a Johnny Sexton on it and coming home after a few years.

"I will not be returning to domestic politics. If ratified for the next five years I will serve my time in the European Commission and then I will pursue other things. I have no interest in becoming leader of the FG party. I have done my bit for FG and for politics after 32 years and I am moving on.

Does he have regrets? "Maybe at times I could have communicated things better. But I am a man who wants to get things done. My legacy is having worked in a government that saved the country.''

A life in brief

Born: 1960. Eldest of four children, three boys and a girl.

Family:  Married to Kathleen Murphy. Separated with one son, Edward (25), who is doing a financial services internship in the City of London.

Education: St Joseph’s College, Freshford, St Kieran’s College, Kilkenny and University College Cork.

Career: Elected to Kilkenny County Council in 1982 and to the Dáil in 1989. Appointed  Minister of State at the Department of Finance in 1995 and Minister for the Environment in 2011.

Likes: A round of golf. Plays off 17 and is a member of Mount Juliet in Thomastown.

Low point: Being booed at the homecoming of the Kilkenny All-Ireland winning Hurling team in Nowlan Park.

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