Foreign Affairs staff ‘mortified’ over gathering during Covid restrictions

Staff at the Department of Foreign Affairs were “all mortified” that officials celebrated Ireland’s election onto the UN Security Council in June 2020 with a champagne party, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said.

A photograph of the celebration at a time of Covid-19 restrictions on gatherings was posted on Twitter by then secretary general of the department Niall Burgess but the tweet was deleted shortly afterwards.

The Minister said he was not at the celebration at any stage. He said he watched the vote in the Department of the Taoiseach and went back to his department in Iveagh House on St Stephen’s Green about an 1¾ hours later as he needed to finish some work.

“I called into the UN section to thank people who were still there for the work that they had done,” he said.

Asked whether the gathering was still under way at that time, he said: “People were at work. When I arrived, there certainly wasn’t a party going on.”

He said he was in the UN section of the department for about 10 minutes.

Mr Coveney said he didn’t know that “an inappropriate gathering” had taken place until he was shown Mr Burgess’s tweet late that evening.

The gathering “shouldn’t have happened”, he said.

“People like me and my department need to lead by example. This is something that I think many in the department are very embarrassed about and feel ashamed about, but it happened and it didn’t happen since. I think from that point of view, the lesson has been learned,” he said.

Mr Coveney said he did not investigate the matter further because the matter had been “quite public” having been posted on social media and then taken down again, and there was “an acknowledgement of wrongdoing”.

“I trusted my secretary general and I felt that clearly what happened shouldn’t have happened but I didn’t feel that there was a need for follow-up after that,” he said.

Oireachtas committee

Mr Coveney said he was willing to go before an Oireachtas committee to answer questions about the champagne gathering.

“I will always go before the Oireacthas Committee for Foreign Affairs if they want to ask me about anything,” he said.

On a separate matter, Mr Coveney said he hoped the Garda investigation into the leaking of a confidential document relating to GPs by party colleague Tánaiste Leo Varadkar to a friend would be concluded “long before” he is due to take over as taoiseach at the end of this year.

He declined to say whether someone who is under Garda investigation should occupy the office of Taoiseach.

“The sooner that investigation draws to a conclusion the better and I think many expected that it would have concluded before now but look, that’s a matter for the guards and I don’t think I should get involved in that,” he said.

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