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 welcomed public outrage over the event attended by more than 80 people, 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 coronavirus.
But he sought to focus attention on the government’s legislative record, not speculation that his coalition will collapse over the scandal.
“It will survive,” he said during a 40-minute grilling by national broadcaster RTE. “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.
"This government has been lurching from one crisis to another, entirely devoid of leadership or cohesion,” Mary Lou McDonald, president of the opposition Sinn Fein party, tweeted Sunday. ``They must be held to account.”
The scandal erupted last week amid reports that 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 barred large social events and said no more than eight people should sit together in restaurants.
Former Agriculture Minister Dara Calleary resigned over his attendance, as did Jerry Buttimer, the deputy speaker of the Senate. Phil Hogan, the European Union trade commissioner, is also under pressure.
Irish Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien on Monday demanded that Hogan step down, while Martin asked him provide a "comprehensive statement’’ on the issue.
Hogan has been criticized for repeatedly adjusting his comments about the gala event. The latest revelations came Sunday, when it emerged that he was stopped by police in County Kildare for talking on his mobile phone while driving to the event in Galway. Kildare was under a tight lockdown at the time because of a spike in COVID-19 infections.
Hogan, a key player in trade talks with the U.K. following Britain's exit from the EU, took to Twitter on Sunday to "fully and unreservedly” apologize for attending the dinner. He said organizers and the hotel had assured him it would be held in compliance with government guidelines.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has also demanded that Hogan provide more details about the event.
Von der Leyen will “carefully analyze” that information and a report Hogan filed on Friday before deciding what action to take, Dana Spinant, a commission spokeswoman, told reporters Monday. The president expects commissioners to comply with the same coronavirus restrictions as everyone else, she said.
“We feel for the people of Ireland who, like many other people and communities in the 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,” Spinant said. “This is a matter not just of respecting the rules, but this is also a matter of public health.”
The controversy threatens to undermine Martin’s three-party coalition, which formed a government in late June, more than four months after a general election that ended with no clear winner.
Sinn Fein, a left-wing party long associated with the Irish Republic Army, surprised many by topping the vote with 24.5% support, more than 3 percentage points ahead of second place Fianna Fael.
But Sinn Fein was left out of the government because both Fianna Fael and Fine Gael, which have alternated in power since Ireland gained independence almost a century ago, refused to work with the party because of its historic links to the IRA.
Fianna Fael and Fine Gael joined with the smaller Green Party to form a government on June 27.
The golf society controversy has fanned the flames of that election, with Martin and Sinn Fein trading barbs about efforts to clamp down on COVID-19.
Reada Cronin, a lawmaker from Kildare North, said her constituents are paying a heavy price for the government's failure to control COVID-19. She said they are also angry “Ireland’s most privileged and powerful broke public health rules.''
“Behavior like this can severely undermine public confidence in the public health measures at a vital stage,'' she said. “I believe it is dangerous, dysfunctional and shows a disconnect from the lives of people in Kildare who are continuing to struggle under lockdown.''
Martin hit back, criticizing Sinn Fein for inviting people from all over the country to attend the funeral of Bobby Storey, an IRA volunteer who was repeatedly arrested during the conflict in Northern Ireland. About 1,500 people, including McDonald, attended Storey’s funeral on June 30.
“Some of the opposition need to be quite careful about putting their chin up right now,’’ Martin told RTE. ”The Sinn Fein approach to this is quite hypocritical. … There were huge numbers (at Storey’s funeral) and there was a clear breach’’ of social distancing rules.