Irish leader forced to defend govt future amid golf scandal

Danica Kirka and Lorne Cook
Associated Press

London – Ireland’s prime minister was forced to defend the future of his government Monday as criticism mounted over a golf event attended by senior politicians despite a ban on large gatherings designed to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Taoiseach Micheal Martin, during a 40-minute grilling by national broadcaster RTE, welcomed public outrage over the event, which has already led to the resignation of his agriculture minister and the deputy speaker of the upper house of parliament, because he said it underscored the need for everyone to combat the spread of coronavirus.

But he sought to focus attention on the Irish government’s legislative record, not speculation that his coalition will collapse over the scandal.

Prime Minister of Ireland Michael Martin

“It will survive,” he said. “The situation is tenable, of course it’s tenable. It’s not falling apart. The government is seven weeks in office. It’s done more in its first seven weeks in office than many of its predecessors.’’

Martin’s comments came after the government said parliament would be recalled from its summer recess next week, two weeks ahead of schedule. Opposition parties are demanding that lawmakers return immediately to debate the crisis.

The scandal erupted last week amid reports that more than 80 people, including senior members of Martin’s party, Fianna Fael, attended a golf society dinner in Galway on Aug. 19. That was a day after the government re-introduced social distancing rules that bar large social events and say no more than eight people should sit together in restaurants.

Former Agriculture Minister Dara Calleary resigned over his attendance, as has Jerry Buttimer, the deputy speaker of the Senate. The government at first asked Phil Hogan, the European Union trade commissioner, to “consider his position’’ after he, too, attended the event, but has given him some space to explain his actions.

Hogan’s boss in Brussels, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, has also demanded that he provide more details surrounding his attendance at the golf club event, as pressure increased on him to resign. The request came after Hogan sent her a report about it on Friday.

“The president has requested further clarifications because details are important, and she wishes to have them,” commission spokeswoman Dana Spinant told reporters Monday. She said von der Leyen would “carefully analyze” the report and additional information before deciding what action to take.

Spinant said von der Leyen “does expect commissioners to comply with the same rules as citizens do.”

“We feel for the people of Ireland who, like many other people and communities in European Union over the past months, had to go through difficult times to comply with strict regulations in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus,” she said.

“Many have lost loved ones, many others have been ill, and others have suffered from the restrictions,” Spinant said. “This is a matter not just of respecting the rules, but this is also a matter of public health.”

Hogan, who has also been a key player in trade talks with the United States and the U.K. since Brexit, took to Twitter on Sunday to “fully and unreservedly” apologize. He said organizers and the hotel had assured him that it would be held in compliance with government guidelines.