Irish minister quits but EU commissioner defiant after apparent breach of virus curbs – dpa international


Dara Calleary (L) and fellow TD (parliamentarian) Michael Ring at the vote count for the Mayo constituency after Ireland’s 2016 elections (Simon Roughneen)

Martin had on Tuesday announced the reintroduction of some curbs deployed during the country’s March-May lockdown.

The revived restrictions cap attendance at most indoor meetings at six people, though the previous upper limit of 50 has been retained for events such as weddings and religious services, as well as inside restaurants.

The hotel that hosted the dinner attended by Calleary and Hogan said the dinner guests were split into two groups of around 40 apiece.

European Union Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan was also among the approximately 80 people who attended the event, which was held in Clifden on Ireland’s Atlantic coast.

Hogan, a former Irish government minister, said he had attended “on the clear understanding” that the arrangements were in compliance with the government’s rules.

European Commission spokesperson Dana Spinant said Hogan attended in “good faith.”

“Had he known that the events would not be in compliance … he would not have attended,” Spinant said.

Ireland’s main opposition party Sinn Féin said Hogan should follow Calleary’s example and resign, while the Labour Party said the Brussels-based commissioner should explain if he adhered to official guidelines that most visitors should self-isolate for 14 days after entering Ireland.

Calleary’s resignation means that Martin will have to find a third agriculture minister just two months into tenure as taoiseach, the official title of the prime ministerial office, after first nominee Barry Cowen quit after 17 days over a 2016 drink-driving offence.

Martin will step in as acting agriculture minister until Ireland’s parliament reconvenes in September.

Opposition leader Mary Lou McDonald said Martin turned down her request to have the parliament, or Dáil, sit sooner. Her Sinn Féin party was heavily-criticized over appearing to break social distancing requirements during the June funeral of Bobby Storey, a leading figure in the Irish Republican Army.

Calleary is the deputy leader of Martin’s centre-left Fianna Fáil, which heads a coalition government with former centre-right rivals Fine Gael, Commissioner Hogan’s party, as well as the Green Party. The government was formed in June after an inconclusive election on February 8 was followed by the coronavirus pandemic, which saw Ireland in lockdown for most of the intervening months

Deputy Prime Minister and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar tweeted on Friday that the event attended by party colleague Hogan “should not have happened.”

Varadkar, then prime minister, faced criticism in May for appearing shirtless with friends in a crowded Dublin park at a time when Ireland’s coronavirus-related curbs were tighter than now.

Almost 28,000 coronavirus cases been officially recorded in Ireland since the first was announced on February 29. 1,776 people have died after being diagnosed with the virus.

Daily case numbers peaked in the high hundreds in April before falling to around 20 a day during June and July.

Eased in June, some restrictions were reimposed on August 7 in three counties where hundreds of new cases originated, mostly in meat factories.

The nationwide curbs announced on Tuesday came after new daily cases topped the 100-mark four times in August. Despite the jump in daily case numbers, Department of Health statistics show only 17 people in hospital in Ireland due to coronavirus.

The revived curbs have been widely-criticized as confusing, with the country’s biggest sporting organisation, the Gaelic Athletic Association, demanding to know why a previous limit of 200 people at outdoor events such as football matches has been cut to a maximum of 15.

During a Wednesday radio interview on RTÉ, Ireland’s public broadcaster, Green Party leader and Transport Minister Eamon Ryan said the new restrictions contained “contradictions” and conceded that Ireland’s coronavirus testing and tracing system was “caught off guard” by recent cases.

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