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scandalous From golfgate to Varadkar's leak fiasco: A look back on this year's biggest political controversies


The Covid-19 pandemic dominated the news in 2020 but Irish politicians were almost tripping over themselves to share the headlines with the virus in a year that saw one political controversy after another.

The year wasn’t even a week old when the Government were forced to defend plans to have a State commemoration of the Royal Irish Constabulary and Dublin Metropolitan Police

Then justice minister Charlie Flanagan said the event wouldn’t be "celebration" of either organisation and that it was "in no sense a commemoration" of the notorious Black and Tans.

He subsequently called off the commemoration saying it was the “right thing to do”.

A few days later Leo Varadkar was forced to call an election in January after it became apparent the government would not have the numbers to defeat a motion of no confidence in then-Health Minister Simon Harris.

With the campaign underway the Black and Tans issued continued to come up as a sticking point.

Paddy Holohan's controversial comments

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Controversial comments:  MMA fighter Paddy Holohan. Photo: Frank McGrath

Controversial comments: MMA fighter Paddy Holohan. Photo: Frank McGrath

Controversial comments: MMA fighter Paddy Holohan. Photo: Frank McGrath

On the same week Varadkar announced the date of the election Sinn Fein Councillor Paddy Holohan was suspended from the party after comments he made about women and Leo Varadkar came to light.

"There is some f**king scum women out there as well,” Holohan said.

He then claimed he was aware of an incident in which an underage girl was blackmailing a man for €10,000.

“And that wasn’t the first person, there were loads of them. What kind of situation is that that is going on in society now? I have two sons, it petrifies me that somebody can turn around and say, ‘I’m literally going to say you attacked me if you don’t give me ten grand’.”

He also claimed Leo Varadkar was “separated from the history of the country” because his “blood obviously runs to India” and went on to say he would prefer if the leader of the country was a “family man”.

The issue came up again later in the year when Sinn Fein suspended all party activity in Dublin South West after local party members put Holohan forward for nomination as Mayor of South Dublin County Council following his return from suspension.

In the meantime, civil war rivals Fianna Fail and Fine Gael went into coalition for the first time in their history along with the Green Party.

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The Government soon found itself in numerous controversies.

Barry Cowen drink-driving saga

Fianna TD Barry Cowen had barely got his foot in the door in his new role as Minister for Agriculture when it emerged he had been convicted for drink driving following an incident in 2016.

While he made a statement to the Dáil apologising for the incident, the Sunday Times published a story claiming that Garda records should he may have tried to avoid the checkpoint.

Cowen denied the claim but when Taoiseach Micheal Martin met with Cowen and told him he’d need to provide further public clarification on the matter the TD refused. He subsequently refused to resign and was sacked by the Taoiseach.

Neasa Hourigan's resignation as chief whip

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Green Party TD Neasa Hourigan at Leinster House on Kildare Street Dublin. Photo:Gareth Chaney/Collins

Green Party TD Neasa Hourigan at Leinster House on Kildare Street Dublin. Photo:Gareth Chaney/Collins

Green Party TD Neasa Hourigan at Leinster House on Kildare Street Dublin. Photo:Gareth Chaney/Collins

Fianna Fail weren’t the only Government party who struggled to find their feet. Green Party TD Neasa Hourigan resigned her position as chief whip in July after voting against the Government on a bill on tenant’s rights.

Green Party Minister of State Joe O’Brien abstained on the bill.

Donnelly's trampoline comparison

New Health Minister Stephen Donnelly was having a baptism of fire and was widely criticised for comparing the dangers of coronavirus to the dangers of jumping on a trampoline, playing sport and driving a car.

However, his gaffe that week was quickly overshadowed by the scandal that quickly became known as golfgate.

Golfgate

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Trouble: Phil Hogan (left) and Seamus Woulfe were both at the ‘golfgate’ dinner. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Trouble: Phil Hogan (left) and Seamus Woulfe were both at the ‘golfgate’ dinner. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Trouble: Phil Hogan (left) and Seamus Woulfe were both at the ‘golfgate’ dinner. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire


A total of 81 guests attended a dinner as part of a gathering of the Oireachtas Golf Society in Clifden, Co Galway on August 18 breaking restriction on indoor gatherings.

The event was organised by former Fianna Fail Senator Donie Cassidy and was attended by high-ranking public figures.

Resignations were swift after the story emerged.

Fianna Fail’s Dara Calleary who had replaced Barry Cowen as Agriculture Minister was among the first to resign after admitting he had attended.

Fine Gael's Senator Jerry Buttimer, who also attended, resigned from his position as Leas Cathaoirleach of the Seanad.

Buttimer along with five other senators Fianna Fáil's Paul Daly, Aidan Davitt and Niall Blaney and Fine Gael's Paddy Burke and John Cummins were stripped of the party whip as a result of their attendance

RTE announced it was axing plans for broadcaster Sean O’Rourke to return to the airwaves after it emerged he was also in attendance.

European Commissioner for Trade Phil Hogan vigorously resisted calls to resign after it was revealed he attended but as more detail emerged about his movements in the run-up to the event he eventually stood down.

Supreme Court judge Seamus Woulfe declined to step down despite attending the event which led to the Supreme Court asking former chief justice Susan Denham to produce a report on his attendance. Woulfe had only been appointed to the Supreme Court this year after previously serving as Attorney General.

The Denham report concluded that while he should not have attended the event it would be “unjust and disproportionate” to ask Woulfe to resign.

However, the controversy blew up again after the full report was published which revealed Woulfe had described media coverage of the event as “appalling” “overblown” and “fake”, and went onto say he was being treated like he attended Ku Klux Klan rally.

Woulfe was due to meet with Chief Justice Frank Clarke for informal resolution of the matter but cancelled on numerous occasions through October.

They eventually met in November and Clarke told Woulfe it was the view of the judges of the Supreme Court, that Woulfe's actions had caused "significant and irreparable" damage to the Supreme Court. Clarke told Woulfe it was his person opinion he should resign but Woulfe refused.

The Taoiseach met opposition leaders to discuss how to proceed and to consider judicial impeachment but they could not agree on a common approach and the Government said it would not pursue any further action against Woulfe.

McEntree and Woulfe's appointment

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Helen McEntee Photo: Frank McGrath/Irish Independent

Helen McEntee Photo: Frank McGrath/Irish Independent

Helen McEntee Photo: Frank McGrath/Irish Independent


Justice Minister Helen McEntee soon found herself in controversy over the appointment to Seamus Woulfe to the Supreme Court as it emerged he was the only name put forward to Cabinet for the role despite other candidates applying.

The fallout is likely to continue into the New Year.

Varadkar's GP document leak fiasco

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar also found himself in controversy this year after it emerged he leaked a confidential GP contract negotiated with the Irish Medical Organisation to National Association of General Practitioners.

He sent then to his friend Dr Maitiú Ó Tuathail who he later said was “not a close friend” and probably “over-egging” their relationship.

Varadkar apologised in the Dáil for leaking the document but said it did not confer any advantage on the NAGP.

It wasn’t Varadkar’s only controversy. He criticised Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan over proposals to move the country into Level 5 restrictions. He later said he had no problem with Prof Holohan and they held clear-the-air talks.

Student nurse pay

The Government found itself in for further criticism as the year drew to a close over a decision to vote against a motion to pay student nurses for work placement during the pandemic.

In March, then health minister Simon Harris brought in measures to pay student nurses for such placements but the payment scheme ceased in August after numbers of Covid 19 cases had declined.

This month opposition TDs put forward a motion to reinstate the pay but the government parties voted against it.

Days later the Cabinet approved plans to give judges and party whips pay hikes in line with other public sector increases.


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