Only time will tell if Big Phil’s tack is successful

Pints of beer, trays of chicken wings, RTÉ news on the TV. It was a typical Irish celebration of an election victory. Except that it was in Brussels.

Sitting in the Old Hack opposite his new office, Phil Hogan was surrounded by his team: Team Ireland.

Some chosen, some volunteers, mostly Brussels insiders, and not just from his own Fine Gael party, but also from Fianna Fáil. Farming experts, policy buffs, EU nerds.

All were relieved and relaxed now after a frantic few weeks putting together their plan to have Big Phil pass his test to be a member of the European Commission, and the EU’s agriculture commissioner.

The expertly laid plan was perfectly executed, with an attention to detail few but the sceptical Irish could achieve.

His grasp of the brief was impressive. He effortlessly used EU jargon, smoothly extemporised and threw in the odd joke for good measure. He had answers for all 42 questions during the two-and-a-half-hour-long grilling from members of the Parliament’s Agriculture Committee.

Not once did he shuffle his papers as the hapless Jonathan Hill had the previous day. He certainly knew some of the questions in advance — an indication of having magnificent contacts in a world that floats on them.

But it’s not just about knowing the answers to all the problems the MEPs have with agriculture — it’s also about knowing the politics, and Team Ireland had that knowledge in spades.

The killer questions were either so vague as to be unintelligible, or Big Phil took care of them himself.

Dublin MEP Nessa Childers was left swinging in the breeze by her Socialist colleague when his reference to “transparency” got an equally ambiguous response. As former agriculture committee chair, he had worked with Ireland’s EU presidency last year on the Common Agriculture Policy reform.

Ignoring the conventional advice to be deferential and not attempt to intimidate MEPs who continuously need to reaffirm their power over commissioners, Big Phil went on the attack, scorning Sinn Féin MEP Matt Carthy and winning a laugh from the floor.

He got a round of applause from the MEPs for showing Sinn Féin who was boss — but only time will tell whether they warm to this form of Irish defence, or whether they will flex their muscle in the hope of having the last laugh.


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