The embattled European trade commissioner, Phil Hogan, has resigned his post after an outcry over his breaches of coronavirus rules during a golfing break in Ireland.
Hogan issued a statement on Wednesday night apologising to the Irish people and the EU commission for causing hurt and embarrassment, ending his attempts to ride out the controversy and keep his post as a key player in Brexit talks.
“It was becoming increasingly clear that the controversy concerning my recent visit to Ireland was becoming a distraction from my work as an EU commissioner and would undermine my work in the key months ahead,” said the statement.
“I deeply regret that my trip to Ireland – the country that I have been so proud to represent as a public servant for most of my adult life – caused such concern, unease and upset.” He admitted breaching Covid guidelines but denied breaking any law.
Asked in an RTE interview if the commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, forced him out, Hogan said it was his decision to quit: “I resigned myself. I know how to take responsibility.”
Von der Leyen tweeted that she respected his decision and was grateful for his work.
The leaders of Ireland’s three governing parties welcomed the resignation in a joint statement. “We believe that it is the correct course of action given the circumstances of the past week. We all have a responsibility to support and adhere to public health guidelines and regulations.”
Earlier on Wednesday the government signaled it wanted Hogan to quit or be sacked after concluding he flouted coronavirus regulations. The taoiseach, Micheál Martin, said Hogan had undermined public confidence in public health guidelines.
Hogan’s fate rested in the hands of his boss, Von der Leyen, who requested a full account of his movements in Ireland.
She was under pressure to sack the commissioner, an Irish political veteran who moved to Brussels and became the EU’s key figure in Brexit talks, but doing so would have set an awkward precedent.
The Irish public has seethed at revelations about Hogan’s behaviour but some business groups fear Ireland will lose a key ally in Brexit talks. The head of the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association compared ousting Hogan to “cutting off our Brexit nose to spite our Covid face”.
Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, has been tipped to replace Hogan as Ireland’s EU commissioner. David O’Sullivan, who served as the EU’s ambassador to Washington, has also been tipped.
Dublin hopes to retain the trade portfolio at a pivotal time for Brexit and US trade talks but that will be a decision for Von der Leyen.
Hogan attempted to defuse public anger and save his job on Tuesday by publishing a timeline of his movements in Ireland from 31 July to 22 August, and gave about 20 pages of documents with additional details to Von der Leyen.
The row erupted after it emerged the commissioner joined more than 80 people, including politicians and a supreme court judge, at a golfing dinner in Clifden, County Galway, on 19 August.
The event breached Covid-19 regulations and prompted public outrage. Several attendees resigned from their positions, including Dara Calleary, the government’s agriculture minister. Police are investigating the event.
Hogan admitted the gathering was wrong and he should not have attended but initially refused to resign, insisting he respected regulations during the rest of his three-week visit to Ireland. Drip-drip disclosures, however, undermined that claim.
He said he had arrived in Ireland on 31 July and travelled to his temporary residence in county Kildare before being admitted on 5 August to a Dublin hospital, where he tested negative for Covid-19 before being discharged on 7 August.
He returned to Kildare, which was in lockdown because of a surge in infections, and over the next two weeks visited counties Limerick, Roscommon, Kilkenny and Galway before returning to Brussels.
However as a traveller from Belgium, a high-risk country, rules state he should have remained in self-isolation even after a negative test.