Minister says no further investigation needed into champagne celebration

The publication of the report came in the wake of weeks of controversy over the gathering of Department staff, held in the aftermath of Ireland winning a seat on the UN Security Council, while the country was still under strict lockdown
Minister says no further investigation needed into champagne celebration

Simon Coveney was speaking after a report published on Monday found a “serious breach” of Covid-19 social distancing rules had occurred in the Department of Foreign Affairs in June 2020.

The Foreign Affairs Minister has said that no further investigations are needed into a June 2020 champagne celebration in his department.

Simon Coveney was speaking after a report published on Monday found a “serious breach” of Covid-19 social distancing rules had occurred in the Department of Foreign Affairs in June 2020.

The publication of the report came in the wake of weeks of controversy over the gathering of Department staff, held in the aftermath of Ireland winning a seat on the UN Security Council, while the country was still under strict lockdown.

The controversy came to light after a photo of around 20 staff, seen drinking Moet champagne, was tweeted by the former secretary general Niall Burgess, before being quickly deleted.

The report found “no evidence” that any breach took place while Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney was present, or that the event had been planned in advance.

Mr Coveney on Tuesday said that he did not see the need for any further investigation into the matter, despite calls from opposition parties for more clarity on the role on the minister in the affair.

“This shouldn’t have happened. This was a moment of celebration that was careless. That was a serious breach of Covid guidelines,” he said.

“I can totally understand why people looking at this photograph would be very annoyed, given the sacrifices that they themselves and their families have made over the last few years.” 

Asked on RTÉ radio why action was not taken at the time, Mr Coveney said: “Mainly because I trusted my secretary general. I wasn’t there when this breach of guidelines occurred.” 

“I came back to the department later on that evening, to thank the staff. Most of them were ready to go home at that point. I went back up to my office. I was told late that evening, that the Secretary General had tweeted out a photograph which showed people celebrating. That tweet was taken down.” 

He said that the tweet was not taken down at his request.

“To be honest, I saw this as the responsibility of the Secretary General. The issue wasn’t raised with me the following day, and really wasn’t raised with me at all since, for about 18 months.” 

The department’s secretary general Joe Hackett was asked by Mr Coveney to investigate the apparent lockdown-breaking event.

In his report, published on Monday, he wrote: “A serious breach of social distancing guidance occurred in the period immediately following the outcome of the vote.

“Following the announcement of the results, a breach of guidance on social distancing occurred.

“The then Secretary General wanted to acknowledge the achievement of Ireland’s election.

“However, by providing alcohol and requesting a group of 20 officers to congregate for the purposes of a photo, he facilitated a breach of the guidance. Although brief, this was a serious breach.” 

Mr Hackett said it was his view that the actions of staff on that day “were not representative of the dedication and compliance shown by colleagues across the Department in response to the pandemic”, nor was it a reflection of the “overall conduct” of officers on the day in question.

He added: “According to accounts provided by officers, this breach lasted approximately one minute.

“Furthermore, the review team received no evidence that public health guidance was breached when the then-tanaiste returned to the UN Policy Unit to thank the officers.” The report added that it could not rule out the possibility that other “minor breaches of guidance” may have occurred.

'UNCHARACTERISTIC MISTAKE'

Asked if he had any regrets about his handling of the incident, Mr Coveney said: “Certainly I think reading the report now and the outline, which is very clear in the report of a serious breach, and the mistake that was made. Certainly, knowing what I know now, if I’d known it then, I should have raised it directly with the Secretary General.

“This was a very uncharacteristic mistake by a very senior leader in the Department of Foreign Affairs. I saw it as a workplace mistake and, and I trusted him to deal with it.” Mr Coveney, who was not interviewed for the report, said he was happy to take more questions on the row.

However, he rejected calls from Sinn Féin for an independent inquiry.

“I don’t see what else there is to know here,” he said.

He said he was accountable to the Oireachtas on the matter and that the report into the controversy has now been sent to the Oireachtas Foreign Affairs Committee.

Earlier, Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty said that the report did not deliver “accountability”.

“What is clear here is that this internal investigation was never going to provide accountability. And that is very clear, because the role of the minister is absent in this.”

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