From Kilkenny to Brussels and Clifden: The rise and fall of ‘Big Phil’ Hogan

Politician’s career of uncompromising, unapologetic style began with Young Fine Gael

Given the heights to which Phil Hogan has soared in Irish and EU politics over a lengthy and sometimes colourful career, it was inevitable that any fall would also be dramatic.

In the end, the political downfall of the EU trade commissioner and leading Fine Gael elder was linked to a combination of two personal characteristics – his perceived hubris and his well-known love of golf.

As a keen student and practitioner of the political arts, Hogan, more than most, would have been aware of the famous observation by Enoch Powell that "all political careers end in failure".

The common sobriquet attached to Hogan – “Big Phil” – is both a reference to his height at almost six and a half feet and his reputation as a political heavy-hitter who was more likely to be respected than loved.


As a politician with a strong independent, uncompromising style, Hogan was fittingly born on July 4th and recently celebrated his 60th birthday.

Born in 1960, Hogan graduated with a degree in economics and geography as well as a higher diploma in education from UCC and subsequently worked as a farmer and auctioneer before becoming a full-time politician.

In 1977, he was one of the founding members of the Kilkenny branch of Young Fine Gael and his first representative role came when he was co-opted to Kilkenny County Council in 1982 following the death of his father.

As Minister for the Environment Hogan was responsible for the introduction of controversial measures including the local property tax and water charges

Hogan retained his council seat in his first contested election when he topped the poll in the 1985 local elections and became the youngest head of a local authority when he was selected chairman of Kilkenny County Council later that year.

His debut attempt at contesting a general election in 1987 in the Carlow/Kilkenny constituency was unsuccessful, but he received the consolation prize of a seat in the Seanad later that year.

Two years on, he won a Dáil seat which he would retain for 25 years until his departure from Irish politics.

His first ministerial appointment ended in controversy when he was forced to resign as Minister of State in the Department of Finance in 1995 after just seven weeks in office when one of his officials leaked details of the budget to a newspaper.

Away from politics, he is an honorary member of the K Club in Co Kildare and Mount Juliet golf club in Co Kilkenny.

Key organiser

However, he was shortly afterwards appointed chairman of the Fine Gael parliamentary party in a role which allowed him to fine-tune his political skills and develop extensive knowledge of the party organisation and its members.

Even since, Hogan's views on the latest developments and crises would regularly be sought by other senior Fine Gael figures, even after he had left domestic politics for his role as an EU commissioner in Brussels six years ago, because of his renown as an astute reader of current affairs and their political ramifications.

A lover of political intrigue, Hogan has a reputation for backing winners as well as keeping a sharp eye on Irish politics, even at a local level in his native Kilkenny, from his office in Brussels.

Having the tall Kilkenny man on your side has been regarded as crucial, as many Fine Gael leaders could testify.

Hogan was involved in background moves to shore up support for John Bruton when he faced a heave against his leadership in 1994.

He was also regarded as the key organiser behind Enda Kenny's success in warding off a challenge in 2010 from Richard Bruton to his leadership of Fine Gael.

Hogan enjoyed a close friendship with the former taoiseach, notwithstanding the fact that he had challenged Kenny in a contest to take over the reins of the party from Michael Noonan following Fine Gael’s dismal performance in the 2002 general election.

More recently, Hogan offered advice and more low-key support to Leo Varadkar in 2017 when the Dublin West TD emerged triumphant in the battle with Simon Coveney to succeed Kenny as both taoiseach and Fine Gael leader.

The fact Hogan never appeared to have an eye on the top job is regarded by some as an acknowledgment by “Big Phil” himself that his political style does not lend itself to winning any popularity stakes.

Taxes and charges

As Minister for the Environment between 2011 and 2014 – his only senior portfolio in Irish politics – Hogan was responsible for the introduction of controversial measures including the local property tax and water charges which sparked major public opposition that threatened the stability of the government.

It also made Hogan personally unpopular with the electorate as his unapologetic, defensive style was not geared to winning the public’s hearts and minds.

In a move that suited both Hogan and Fine Gael, he became the Irish government's nominee to the European Commission for which he was rewarded with one of the more high profile positions as EU Commissioner for Agriculture.

While he toyed with seeking the nomination to become the next director general of the World Trade Organisation, Hogan ultimately withdrew from the race

The appointment was particularly welcomed by Ireland’s farming and agribusiness sector given his role in overseeing ongoing reform of the Common Agriculture Policy.

In an unprecedented development and a sign of Hogan's polarising persona, given the tradition of Irish members of the European Parliament "donning the green jersey" by supporting the country's nomination to the European Commission, five of the 11 Irish MEPs opposed Hogan's appointment to Jean Claude Juncker's EU cabinet.


During his time in Brussels, Hogan used his well-honed political skills to develop important contacts with a range of office holders, Commission officials, MEPs, business interests and other figures that further enhanced his reputation as a smart political operator.

Last September, Hogan was nominated as the next EU trade commissioner by the new president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in a move widely regarded as a promotion given the key role the office holder would play in overseeing the ongoing Brexit negotiations as well as wider reform of agreements between the EU and its international trade partners.

While he toyed with seeking the nomination to become the next director general of the World Trade Organisation earlier this summer in a career path that would have mirrored that of another Fine Gael statesman, the late Peter Sutherland, Hogan ultimately withdrew from the race, citing the importance of his current job.