By Padraic Halpin
DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland's agriculture minister resigned on Friday after he said he had damaged the national effort in fighting COVID-19 by attending a social event that could have breached health regulations.
Dara Calleary was among more than 80 guests at a hotel dinner hosted by the Irish parliament's golf society, the night after he and his cabinet colleagues significantly tightened nationwide restrictions to try to rein in a rise in infections.
Ireland has maintained some of the strictest controls in Europe and the government faced criticism all week for what many saw as poorly communicated and contradictory new restrictions, including limiting indoor gatherings to just six people.
Other politicians, including European Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan, attended the dinner that drew a wave of public anger.
"I want to apologise to everyone... I have damaged the national effort to try and take on COVID," Calleary told his local radio station, Midwest Radio.
"I've let people down, I've angered a lot of people, I've stressed a lot of people who have had to make very difficult calls over the last six months."
Prime Minister Micheál Martin accepted his resignation, saying Calleary made the right decision for the country and that the event should never have gone ahead.
An initial apology late on Thursday on Calleary's Twitter account received almost 2,000 replies within two hours, many from people angry that they could not attend funerals because of the rules or had to cancel holidays or weddings.
Calleary was only named agriculture minister last month when his predecessor was fired after news emerged of a drink-driving prosecution just two weeks into the term of Martin's new coalition government.
The Irish Times quoted a person who stayed at the hotel and did not wish to be named as saying that he saw no evidence of social distancing when the attendees arrived, that they were not wearing masks, and that they shook hands with one another.
Polce said they were investigating the event for alleged breaches of public health regulations.
Hogan, Ireland's representative on the EU's executive for the last six years, said in a statement that he attended the dinner on the clear understanding that the hotel had been assured the arrangements in place would comply with guidelines.
He added that he had complied fully with travel restrictions to self-isolate for 14 days, having been in Ireland since late July.
A senior member of the main Irish opposition party, Sinn Fein, said Hogan should resign over his attendance.
The deputy leader of Ireland's upper house of parliament stood down and was suspended from the governining Fine Gael along with two other senators who attended. Martin suspended three members of the upper house from his Fianna Fail party.
Another attendee, recently appointed Supreme Court Judge Seamus Woulfe also apologised for any unintentional breach of the new guidelines. In his prior role as attorney general, Woulfe was involved in the drafting of the initial regulations.
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio in Brussels; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Toby Chopra)