Head of News Kevin Doyle examines the fallout from the Oireachtas Golf Society event in Galway which has seen a Fianna Fáil minister resign
The Golf Society is a primarily male club of TDs and senators, past and present. They do not meet very regularly, but the event this week was long-flagged as a significant one to mark their 50th anniversary. Players were charged €140 in green fees for two days of golf on Tuesday and Wednesday at the Connemara Golf Club and the now infamous gala dinner.
It was originally planned that dinner would be served in the golf club itself, but it was decided to move it to the Kylemore Suite in the nearby Station House Hotel in Clifden in an effort to comply with public health guidelines.
Invitations for the event were issued by the society’s captain, Independent TD Noel Grealish, and its president, former Fianna Fáil senator Donie Cassidy. Members of the Society were told that they could bring a guest if they wished.
According to the invitation the Society’s committee includes former agriculture ministers Barry Cowen and Michael Creed; junior minister Robert Troy; former MEP Brian Hayes; Fianna Fáil TD James Lawless; Fianna Fáil senators Aidan Davitt and Paul Daly; former Independent TD Michael Harty; former Fine Gael senators Paul Coghlan and Eamonn Coghlan. Only Paul Coghlan and Messrs Harty, Hayes, and Daly are listed as having been in attendance at the controversial event.
Mr Lawless said he has never actually been to an Oireachtas golf outing and only ever attended one meeting three years ago. He said he was surprised to see himself listed as a serving committee member.
Even before the tightening of Covid restrictions on Tuesday, this event would have been off-limits. When it was organised the rules stated that indoor gatherings were limited to 50 people. It is understood around 80 people attended the dinner, excluding staff. The hotel said the suite was split into two rooms using a partition that put 45 on one side and 36 on the other.
On Tuesday, the rules were made even more strict as Taoiseach Michael Martin told the country we needed to deal with the “harsh reality” that Covid-19 was on the rise. The guidelines set out that day said “no formal or informal events or parties should be organised” in hotels. The only exception was for weddings.
Aside from the Covid rules, Galway was subject to an orange weather warning on Wednesday night due to Storm Ellen. Met Éireann said there would be wind speeds in the area with the capacity to produce dangerous, stormy conditions which could pose a risk to life and property.
Dara Calleary doesn’t actually play golf, but he was invited to the event as it was honouring former Fianna Fáil MEP Mark Killilea who died in 2018. He accepted the invitation to make a tribute several months ago and decided to honour the commitment. This has now cost him his job as Agriculture Minister.
Mr Calleary apologised last night, but after a number of conversations with Taoiseach Micheál Martin and amid growing public disquiet he decided there was little option but to resign. Speaking on Mid West radio today, the Mayo TD said: “I shouldn’t have gone to the function. I didn’t want to let people down and I take responsibility for that mistake.”
EU Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan, who is a golfer, is now in the firing line. He is understood to have participated in the golf competition before staying on for the dinner. Mr Hogan says he returned to Ireland from his base in Brussels in July and has respected the 14-day quarantine. He has apologised for any upset caused but remains under pressure.
Mr Hogan said, through his spokesman, said that he “apologises for any distress caused by my attendance” at the dinner. He reiterated: “I would not have gone if I thought there was any breach of Covid guidelines.”
The former environment minister said he was there “on the clear understanding that the organisers and the hotel concerned had been assured [by the Irish Hotels’ Federation] that the arrangements put in place would be in compliance with the government’s guidelines”.
News of his involvement is already making headlines around the world – but the EU Commission are standing by their man. A spokesperson said: “Commissioner Hogan takes seriously Covid 19 rules and guidelines. He met fully the requirements regarding Covid 19 rules upon his return to Ireland from Brussels.”
Newly-appointed Supreme Court Judge Seamus Woulfe has apologised for his attendance. While he may not be a household name, Mr Woulfe is a very influential figure in Irish society. Until recently he was Attorney General and heavily involved in the drawing up of lockdown regulations. After the Coalition was formed, he was appointed as a judge and was sworn in just three weeks ago.
In a statement Mr Woulfe said he understood the organisers and hotel had satisfied themselves that they would be operating within the public health guidelines. However, he apologised for “any unintentional breach of any of the new guidelines” which were made by his attendance.
“That I ended up in a situation where breaches may have occurred, is of great regret to me, and for which I am sorry. I unreservedly apologise,” he added.
Mr Woulfe previously made headlines after telling a lunch gathering that the Dáil was making a dog’s dinner of reforming judicial appointments.
A number of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil senators have issued apologies today. The most high-profile is Jerry Buttimer, who has resigned as Leas-Chathaoirleach of the Seanad. Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has also removed the party whip from Mr Buttimer and two others, Paddy Burke and John Cummins.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin has removed the Fianna Fáil whip from senators Paul Daly, Aidan Davitt and Niall Blaney. Mr Blaney is understood to have been one of the winners on the golf course.
Sean O’Rourke, who recently retired from the ‘Today’ show on RTÉ, was also among the attendees. There was also a long list of ex-politicians on the guest list and even some ambassadors.
Gardaí have launched a formal investigation into potential health breaches at the function. In a statement, the Garda Press Office confirmed it was “investigating an event that was held in Co. Galway on the 19th August, 2020 into alleged breaches of The Health Act 1947 (Section 31A-Temporary Restrictions) (COVID-19) (No.3) Regulations 2020, as amended.
“As this is an active investigation An Garda Síochána has no further comment.”
The inquiry will focus on the organising of the event rather than individual people who attended the function.
Relations between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were already in a very bad place before this scandal. At a Cabinet meeting this week, Leo Varadkar made what colleagues interpreted as a veiled threat to pull out of government. This fiasco has seen relations plummet even further.
Higher Education Minister Simon Harris said today that he was “struggling to put words on how shocking and upsetting I find what has happened”. “People are gutted and anger is palpable. I feel that too,” he said, adding that the dinner was “a stomach punch to every one in this country who has sacrificed so much”.
TDs are not due back in Leinster House until September 17, which seems very far away right now. By then schools will have reopened and the leaving cert results issued. Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald spoke with Taoiseach Micheál Martin today and asked him to reconvene the Dáil, but he refused. “He is wrong. The government is increasingly chaotic, confused, with no direction. They must be held to account,” she said.
Mr Martin has issued his own statement saying: “People all over the country have made very difficult, personal sacrifices in their family lives and in their businesses to comply with Covid regulations. This event should not have gone ahead in the manner it did given the Government decision of last Tuesday.”