Few politicians set a job at the European Commission as their long-term goal. But Phil Hogan, the European commissioner for agriculture and rural development, is a rare exception. As long ago as the formation of Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael-led Irish coalition government in 2011, ‘Big Phil’ – he clocks in at 1.96 metres in his socks – put his marker down for the commissionership. After the Labour Party, the junior coalition partner, took the post of attorney general, the Commission job was always going to Fine Gael, and Hogan had long ago reached the reluctant conclusion that he was more of a fixer than a potential national leader.
By the time Kenny had to make a nomination, Hogan’s departure from Dublin was desirable. For four years, Hogan had fronted the government’s most controversial proposals – water charges and taxes on households and property – to his personal detriment. Hogan’s popularity reached a low point when, despite being a local lad and for 25 years a member of parliament for the area, he was booed at the homecoming of the championship-winning Kilkenny hurling team. His role was as the hard face of the government in imposing water charges, which have triggered some of the largest street demonstrations in Irish history. His departure to Brussels and replacement by Labour’s young deputy leader, Alan Kelly, has allowed Kenny to soften his position and perhaps revive his plummeting political prospects.
While someone as steeped in Irish political intrigue as he is will find it hard to stay out of the domestic arena entirely, Fine Gael’s preparations for a 2016 election are no longer Hogan’s concern, and attempts by Sinn Féin MEPs to make them so at his confirmation hearing before MEPs failed.
Hogan is known for throwing himself into whatever he does and would have committed himself with gusto to any portfolio assigned to him by Jean-Claude Juncker. That Juncker chose agriculture and rural development for Hogan – as part of his counter-intuitive strategy of handing dossiers to those countries with a particular national interest – guaranteed his single-minded attention.
Hogan, 54, was born and raised on the family farm in rural Kilkenny in south-east Ireland – the eldest of four children – and briefly ran the business after graduating from University College Cork. His flirtation with a business outside politics, during which time he co-founded a firm of auctioneers, was short-lived. He joined Kilkenny County Council at 22, became its chairman at 25 – the youngest council leader in the country – and helped set up the local branch of Young Fine Gael.
An unsuccessful bid for a parliamentary seat in 1987 was swiftly followed by election to the senate, during which he demonstrated his political skills by persuading the Workers’ Party, which shared few of his opinions, to support him. Two years later, Hogan was elected to the lower house (Dáil Éireann) for Carlow Kilkenny and was appointed to a string of frontbench jobs as spokesman on the food industry, consumer affairs, and on regional affairs and European development.
Early on, he developed a reputation inside the parliamentary party for loyalty to the leader. At the time that leader was John Bruton, who was prime minister in 1994-97 and went on to head the European Commission’s delegation in Washington, DC. Hogan later showed the same allegiance to Kenny in a party that frequently features attempted coups against its chiefs. After Bruton won the 1994 election, Hogan took a junior ministerial post in the department of finance but was in situ for less than two months – his departure precipitated by one of his staff accidentally leaking budget details to a newspaper.
On losing his government job, Hogan’s reward for his loyalty and obvious political talents was a promotion to the chairmanship of the Fine Gael parliamentary party at the age of 35. His six years in this job were his political education, in which he learned not just about the party leadership but its organisation and roots – a position of influence that made him indispensable to Kenny when he replaced Michael Noonan as party leader following the 2002 election.
1960: Born, Kilkenny
1981: Degree in economics and geography, University College Cork
1981-83: Managed and ran the family farm
1983: Founded Hogan Campion Auctioneers
1983: Elected to Kilkenny County Council
1985: Chairman of Kilkenny County Council
1987-89: Member of Seanad Éireann
1989: Elected to the Dáil Éireann for Carlow-Kilkenny
1993: Fine Gael spokesman on European affairs and regional development
1994: Fine Gael spokesman on transport, energy and communications
1994-95: Minister of state at the Irish department of finance
1995-2001: Chairman of the Fine Gael parliamentary group
2002-07: Fine Gael director of organisation; spokesman on enterprise, trade and employment
2007-11: Fine Gael spokesman on environment, heritage and local government
2010-11: National director of elections for Fine Gael
2011-14: Minister for the environment, community and local government
2014-: European commissioner for agriculture and rural development
Although Hogan had also stood for the leadership, he never expected to win and quickly established himself as Kenny’s right-hand man and the architect of rebuilding a demoralised opposition as director of organisation for Fine Gael. He knew all the branch chairs and councillors, and was always on the look-out for talented candidates. This diligently accumulated knowledge bore fruit at the 2004 European and local elections, but it was not enough to yield more than an extra 20 seats for the party at the 2007 election.
Having done so much to repair the party, Hogan was unhappy at being removed as national organiser. But he continued to stand by Kenny, most notably in 2010 when Richard Bruton, the former premier’s brother, launched a leadership challenge.
Nine months later, Kenny appointed Hogan minister for the environment, community and local government in a government whose all-consuming aim was to meet the demands of the troika of international creditors, win back market credibility and thereby generate growth and jobs in time for re-election in 2016. While Noonan, as finance minister, became the face of the bank bail-outs, Hogan was soon perceived as the creditors’ taxman.
In July 2011, he set out plans for a €100 annual “household charge” to take effect from 2012 and then be replaced by a full property tax, and then for the creation of a new utility, Irish Water, to oversee the installation of meters and prepare for the introduction of water charges – the
first local taxes to be introduced since 1977.
His problems were compounded by a string of unflattering media stories, including his refusal to pay service charges on his penthouse apartment in Portugal (he was not happy with the service); a crude remark he made to a former Bruton aide (he apologised); and allegations that he accepted ‘soft’ loans of nearly €900,000 from the disgraced ex-chief of a building society (he refused to comment).
After abandoning legislation introduced in the dying days of the last government by the Green Party, Hogan also developed a reputation as a climate-change sceptic. It is a charge he has always denied. He claimed that he took a realistic approach to Ireland’s economic sustainability and food security by not setting emission targets for the agricultural sector.
Highly rated inside the Irish government, Hogan’s image with the Irish public is less favourable. But the ability to focus on a dossier, sympathy for farmers, the ability to navigate bureaucracies and meet political needs, and stick to an unpopular line are all virtues in his new role. Simplification of the Common Agricultural Policy, the future of direct payments, and production constraints may depend on those skills.