What were they thinking? Eighty-one figures from the political, banking and judicial establishment were present at an Oireachtas Golf Society dinner in Clifden in blatant breach of the public health rules. One man staying in the hotel who had spotted the dinner told RTÉ Radio that he remarked to his wife at the time, “this is going to be trouble.”
Why did he realise that, yet 81 of the supposedly finest political, legal and lobbying minds failed to? In a word, arrogance. For the establishment, rules are for other people.
They are undoubtedly regretting it now. Not because it was some sort of ‘honest mistake’. But because they got caught. Because some of them have been forced to resign from lucrative public positions. And because the dinner has served as an incredible exposure of the emptiness of the rhetoric of us all ‘being in it together’.
Now it is the focal point of incredible public anger. Social media and the airwaves were full of stories of people who had to cancel their weddings and who were unable to attend the funerals of loved ones. This dinner, and what it represented, was a slap in the face for the vast majority of us who have made sacrifices as part of what was meant to be a collective effort to protect public health.
Golfgate shows how power works
For many people the story developed from simple outrage over the double standards of the elite to a broader discussion about what this dinner says about how the powerful rule. When people saw who was present, comparisons were immediately made with the notorious Fianna Fáil ‘Galway tent’, where TDs and Senators would mingle at the races with developers and big farmers and hundreds of thousands of euros would be donated to Fianna Fáil.
At the Clifden dinner was not only the Minister for Agriculture and a series of TDs and Senators present, but they were joined by a Supreme Court judge, Seamus Woulfe, as well as the top lobbyist for the banks, and former Fine Gael MEP, Brian Hayes, and European Commissioner, Phil Hogan.
Where now was the precious ‘separation of powers’ which was wielded against Bríd Smith TD for having the temerity to criticise a judge’s judgement in the Dáil? The presence of Brian Hayes, the Chief Executive of the Banking & Payment Federation Ireland, recalled the golf game which former Taoiseach, Brian Cowen played with then Anglo Chairman, Sean Fitzpatrick, in 2008.
In this one event is a concentrated example of how power works in Ireland and all capitalist countries. The interests of the capitalist class, which own and control the means of production, are transmitted to the political and judicial establishment not just through formal lobbying, but from informal social and cultural connections, which means that they share a common worldview. This outlook is one of elevation of the private profit of the banks and other corporations and contempt for working class people, summed up in Phil Hogan’s memorable threat to turn down people’s water “to a trickle” if they refused to pay the water charges. In other words, it is a viewpoint totally aligned with that of the capitalist class in power.
The smooth and rapid transmission of economic interests into political policy is facilitated by the revolving door between establishment party representatives and lobbyists for private interest groups. Brian Hayes was not the only politician turned lobbyist present. Lorraine Higgins, former Labour Senator, and now CEO of Digital Business Ireland was also there.
Phil Hogan forced to resign
The political establishment, aided by parts of the media, have been trying desperately to draw a line under the crisis. They have doled out minimal sanctions to some of those involved – with Dara Calleary losing his Ministerial position, and the TDs and Senators losing their party whip. The judiciary have established their own inquiry into Seamus Woulfe’s attendance.
Large parts of the media, after initially giving voice to the outrage of people, have pivoted to playing it down. On Tuesday, five of the six opinion piece articles on the Irish Independent website were encouraging people to “Forget Golfgate” and “move on”.
But they faced a problem – a Phil Hogan shaped problem. From attempting to brazen it out with no apology at all initially, to then apologising “for any distress caused”, he was forced to issue repeated and, in his words, “fulsome”, apologies. This was driven not only by the mounting public anger over the dinner itself, but revelation after revelation about a series of other rules that he also broke. These include the self-isolation rule that he seems to have repeatedly disobeyed, as well as the lockdown of Kildare. This lockdown caused much disruption and hardship for the residents, while he breezed in and out of the county as he wished.
The more he tried to cling on to his position, the more damage was being done to the political establishment as a whole. Michéal Martin, Leo Varadkar and Eamon Ryan all politely hinted that they would prefer him to go, but they didn’t write to the European Commission President along those lines. The President, Ursula von der Leyen, seemed hesitant to take that step.
An important reason for her hesitancy is that the whole point of the European Commission is to be unaccountable! Decision making has been progressively shifted away from parliaments and governments who have to face elections and are more susceptible to public pressure to the European Commission. Nonetheless, she was forced to take action in this case to avoid this becoming a European scandal.
Even in his interview after his resignation on RTÉ, Hogan maintained his brazen act, incredibly continuing to claim that he “broke no law or regulations!” However, he’s gone and anti-water charges protesters, in particular, may celebrate his departure. A deeper problem that remains for the establishment after Hogan is gone is the growing awareness of whose interests he served.
One of the arguments used by Hogan’s supporters is that we needed him in place to represent us during the post-Brexit negotiations. It didn’t work at winning any support for him, however, because more and more people are realising that he didn’t represent “us” in the European Commission. Just like Fine Gael and Fianna Fail at home, the Commissioners represent the interests of the rich and the capitalist classes in Europe.
It is an open question as to whether the government will be able to stabilise the situation and the crisis, or will they stumble towards an election. It is hard to see Seamus Woulfe not being forced to resign too. However, the job of the socialist left is not simply to force out individual establishment figures. We need to link the outrage over the double standards with an understanding about who rules in Ireland and the need to end the capitalist system which they represent.
The power of big business is reflected in the government’s inconsistent and confused approach to public health advice. They seek to balance that advice with the drive for private profit, which ultimately means that private profit comes before public health. This was most graphically illustrated by the previous government’s dismissal of concerns over meat factories, which have since been horrifically vindicated with huge numbers of cases.
As long as the kind of people present at the Clifden dinner are in charge, profit will continue to come before people’s needs. Meat factories will operate without regard for the health of their workers. Private hospitals will try to make a profit from the pandemic. Big polluters will continue to destroy our planet.
We need to kick out not just those involved in GolfGate, but the entire capitalist and political elite. We need a left government committed to socialist policies and prepared to take on the big polluters, the banks and the private health industry. That means taking the key sections of the economy out of private hands, and into democratic public ownership, where they can be used to plan in the interests of people and our planet. It will require mass movements from below and the building of a mass socialist force to achieve it.
A well-written, interesting and comprehensive piece.
I fully agree, but a workable alternative has to be sold to the majority of the citizens of the country before any change will happen.
I don’t know how that can be achieved, as the gombeen culture is so entrenched.
Perhaps looking at how the Danes operate might yield some tips.
I’d also recommend ‘Humankind: A Hopeful History’ by Rutger Bregman.