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Brendan O'Connor: There's Big Phil -- in the middle of things, again

ASK any kid who has studied Economics 101 about Adam Smith's principles of taxation, and they will tell you that one of the four guiding principles is that a tax should be easy and convenient for people to pay.

We can only assume that Minister Phil Hogan has not studied Adam Smith. Why else would he have taken a tax that people are reluctant to pay anyway, and made it very difficult to pay too? So in the last few weeks we saw an extraordinary situation where many people were trying despite the prevailing mood to pay an unpopular tax, but finding they couldn't. Even some members of the Government didn't seem clear on how to pay the Household tax.

I don't need to lead you through the catalogue of disasters that have brought Fine Gael, Big Phil, and the Household tax to this sorry pass. It has involved ineptitude, incompetence, arrogance, bullying, a lack of credibility (based on previous climbdowns on septic tanks and turf cutters), a lack of communication, complete confusion on the part of Phil and his colleagues, misinformation, and, at the root of it all, arrogance. Not to be a smartass, but this baby had all the hallmarks of the last administration.

But the household tax fiasco, and a complete fiasco it is, is only one of the reasons why Phil Hogan, this weekend, threatens to be the Achilles heel in what should, in some respects, be the perfect Government right now. Fine Gael's ard fheis this weekend should have been a victory lap. Boyish Enda is home after charming both East and West. Obama loves him and the Chinese love him so much they want to buy the country. Enda's been out rebuilding important friendships, and both the superpower of the 20th Century and of the 21st Century appear to be eating out of his hand. We got some class of a convoluted deal on the hated promissory notes, meaning that the March payment will not go ahead. And in general, in some ways, there is almost an air of possibility again in Ireland. Enda could be forgiven for thinking that everything is going his way.

But there are a few flies in the ointment, and too many of them are leading back to Enda's pal, the man to whom, some say, Enda owes everything. It was Big Phil's combination of threats and inducements, they say, that retained the leadership of Fine Gael for Enda when everyone thought he was gone. Without Phil, Enda could have been the greatest Taoiseach we never had.

But instead of a victory lap, this weekend's ard fheis saw protests outside, a general air of disillusionment with the Government. And if you look at the root of the problems, the answer, all too often, is cherchez le Phil.

The Mahon tribunal blew up on Fine Gael in a way it didn't expect. That foolish and badly planned appearance by Enda, on the balcony with Denis O'Brien, allowed Fianna Fail to put the spotlight back on Fine Gael last week and ask it some hard questions about its own friends.

The ripples from that appearance would even see members of the Government questioning Enda Kenny's fraternising with O'Brien. Lucinda Creighton questioned again O'Brien's appearance at last year's economic forum and Joan Burton fired an extraordinary warning shot across Fine Gael's bow in the Dail about public appearances with O'Brien, who was criticised by the Moriarty tribunal a year ago for the manner in which he obtained a mobile phone licence under the auspices of a Fine Gael government.

And all of this has people looking back and remembering that Phil Hogan is a great pal of Michael Lowry's. And then you remember that the Moriarty report detailed political donations made by Denis O'Brien in the run-up to the process of the awarding of that licence to Esat.

It was at a constituency fundraiser in Phil's Carlow/Kilkenny constituency in March 1995 that Denis O'Brien began the process of trying to combat what Sarah Carey had informed him was an image problem he had with Fine Gael. O'Brien donated €1,000 to that lunch and attended it, as did Michael Lowry. Lowry attended as a guest of Phil's, though that was not the first time Lowry and O'Brien had met.

A few months later, in June 1995, O'Brien donated €5,000 to Fine Gael's funds for the Wicklow by-election. Phil Hogan was director of elections for Fine Gael at that by-election. Sarah Carey says that she was not involved in this donation and that Hogan and O'Brien discussed it among themselves. Hogan's recollection is different. He says that as he remembers Sarah Carey asked him whether O'Brien or Esat could help the party out and Hogan mentioned the Wicklow by-election fundraiser. Carey said she didn't recall that conversation. Denis O'Brien said he couldn't remember but he wouldn't disagree with Carey. O'Brien and Lowry both attended that function. This is the first time Hogan thinks he met O'Brien. There was sensitivity around that donation in case people would misrepresent it as a bidder for the mobile phone licence trying to curry favour with the government.

Another big donation that O'Brien gave around this time was €4,000 given to a Fine Gael golf classic. Phil Hogan was chairman of the organising committee of that. Again, for reasons of sensitivities and the possibility of others misunderstanding, Esat asked Fine Gael not to advertise its sponsorship at that event.

Now, it is important to note that Phil Hogan says he never discussed the mobile phone licence with Denis O'Brien and he even says that letters he apparently sent to O'Brien about the donation to the golf classic were not even written by him, rather just signed by him. And there is of course no suggestion that Phil did anything untoward. But with the whole relationship between Fine Gael and O'Brien coming under the microscope again, it would probably be better for Phil if his name didn't pop up there too. Phil's name in connection with another problem.

Phil's name has also come up in another awkward capacity in connection with the phrase "suppression of planning inquiries". Again, no one is saying he did anything untoward, but it just doesn't sound good does it?

'It was Big Phil's combination of threats and inducements, they say, that retained the leadership of FG for Enda...'

There has been a suggestion that Phil halted several planning inquiries that were due to go ahead in, among other places, his own constituency. Hogan said that it was the previous incumbent of the Environment portfolio, John Gormley, who failed to progress these inquiries. But Eamon Ryan came out fighting on this and said Hogan and other ministers were deliberately misleading the public last week.

According to Ryan Meade, former special adviser to John Gormley, in Thursday's Irish Times, an extensive dossier about these inquires, the result of an internal report, was on Phil Hogan's desk when he took office in March. Hogan apparently said that some of the complaints about planning were spurious and cancelled the inquiries in June. In response to Hogan's assertion that John Gormley had not progressed the inquiries, the Greens say there had been a tendering process completed and letters of appointment were ready to go out to chosen consultants to conduct the inquiries, but these letters had been held back by the Department of the Environment when Phil Hogan took over. By Thursday night Fine Gael was all over the problem and promising the results of its own internal inquiry. But mud sticks. And there was Big Phil's name again, in the middle of something to do with planning, in his own constituency. No one is suggesting he did anything wrong but it was more bad publicity for Fine Gael in what should have been its hour of glory, and Phil was in there.

The perception that Phil has acted like a bully over the Household Charge (and the anecdotal perception that it is pensioners who were most terrified by the charge, and the paying thereof) wasn't helped by the story of Phil and Anne O'Connell at the Oireachtas golf outing in Connemara last August. You will recall that when Ms O'Connell remarked to Phil that she hoped he wouldn't screw property owners in the upcoming legislation, he responded, referring to her partner Mairtin Mac Cormaic, "I have no problem screwing you. Hasn't Mairtin been screwing you for years?"

Ms O'Connell, you will recall, was an administrator to John Bruton and is a woman of a certain age. While Phil would later apologise to her for what Ms O'Connell found to be a degrading, insulting and abusive remark, he apologised by saying that he meant it as a joke and it was said in the context of him knowing the couple for 24 years. However, Ms O'Connell told the Clare Champion last week that she didn't know Phil well enough for that kind of banter and that the context of him saying it was not in jovial company, that it was a dismissal in public. Mairtin Mac Cormaic, for his part, feels that the comment implied, in front of other people, that Anne O'Connell had loose morals.

Now while we know that different people can have different memories of the tone of a conversation, you have to think that if Phil was a senior member of government in the UK, made such a remark, and was slow to apologise, he'd probably be gone by now. There would also be questions asked as to why the Taoiseach acknowledged one of Anne O'Connell's letters of complaint to him but didn't reply to either of them. Again, another awkward moment, and Big Phil is there in the middle of it.

As Fine Gael looks back this weekend on its year of magical thinking, it may be starting to see that things can very easily turn sour and that, as Albert said, it's the little things that trip you up. Or the big things. And with tensions becoming more evident between Fine Gael and Labour, and tensions building between the Government and the people, and Phil Hogan's name cropping up too much in those tensions, Fine Gaelers must be wondering just how far Kenny's loyalty to his friend will stretch when the going gets tough.

Sunday Independent