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Friday 1 December 2023 Dublin: -2°C
Alamy Stock Photo Dublin's Iveagh House, where the Department of Foreign Affairs is located.
champagne gate

Former head of Dept of Foreign Affairs to donate €2,000 to charity over champagne gathering

A review into the gathering has been published by the Department of Foreign Affairs this evening.

A REVIEW HAS found that a gathering at the Department of Foreign Affairs was a “serious breach” of Covid guidelines that has “caused offence”, and has subsequently ordered a former secretary general to make a €2,000 donation to a Covid-19 charity.

Three other officials are to also make a €1,000 donation to a charity providing assistance to people affected by Covid-19.

These officials “did not actively facilitate the breach of public health measures,” the review notes, but adds that they accept they “could have done more to try to prevent this breach”.

At least 20 officials and staff at the Department were pictured celebrating with sparkling wine in an event at Iveagh House on 17 June 2020, while pandemic restrictions were still in place.

Staff had gathered that night to see whether Ireland would be elected to the UN Security Council after mounting a bid for one of the two seats. 

After pressure was put on government to answer questions about the gathering, a review was ordered to be carried out by the current secretary general of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Joe Hackett. The report has been published this evening.

The review does conclude that the 25 staff working in the Department on the night were “conducting essential business on behalf of the Department” and their presence was “both essential and appropriate”.

But it criticised the actions of the then secretary general Niall Burgess, who is now Ireland’s Ambassador to France, for the gathering in order to take a group photograph:

Following a toast, the then Secretary General took two photographs (‘selfies’) of the group with his phone in quick succession… The majority of officers in the photographs recalled that the then Secretary General requested the group to gather in close proximity for the purposes of capturing the team in the photograph.

Champagne gate photo (2) The now-deleted tweet containing a photo of the gathering.

The review also states:
… By providing alcohol and organising a group photograph, the then Secretary General was largely responsible for facilitating the breach of social distance guidance that occurred. He also placed colleagues, particularly more junior ones, in a difficult position. His actions were uncharacteristic errors of judgement. He sincerely regrets this. 

The report does conclude that there is no record of an organised “social or celebratory event” or pre-planned social event for that day. It also found that “extensive advanced planning” had taken place to ensure social distancing would be maintained and adhered to – with large rooms chosen to work from.

Nonetheless, the report noted that the gathering to take the photo, although brief, was “a serious breach” of the guidelines at the time:

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. 

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said this evening that the report is ”a fair and balanced account into the events which occurred on 17 June 2020″. 

“I note the conclusions and welcome the actions being taken by the Secretary General,” he said.

The review found “no evidence” that public health guidance was breached when the then Tánaiste Simon Coveney returned to thank the officers after Ireland won the UN Security Council seat around 45 minutes after the photo was taken.

He stayed approximately 15 minutes.

Other details: the wine, ‘in the thick of it’, after the photo

The sparkling wine: The gathering has been dubbed ‘champagne gate’, as sparkling wine has been said to have been served at the event. The review notes that three bottles of sparkling wine were taken from the then Secretary General’s personal items kept in his office “for use as gifts”.

One other officer confirmed that they provided another bottle of sparkling wine which they had retrieved from their office; the review confirmed that no alcohol was taken from official Departmental stocks.

Face masks: The review notes: “While staff in the photo did not wear facemasks, there was no public health requirement to wear masks in such a setting at that time.”

An email: In part of the review’s annexes, it shows officials raising concerns about social distancing requirements, followed by an email saying “following our call earlier, SC happy to watch the result down the back of the political open plan ‘in the thick of it’.”

image (1) Review Review

The baby in the photo: The review states: “Two of the 21 officers present were on maternity leave at the time and attended the building to join colleagues for the announcement of the results and to offer advice and support as necessary.

“Both individuals had worked on the campaign and were considered to be key members of the team. One of the officers concerned attended with her nursing infant. Both individuals confirmed that they attended the building on their own initiative and were not requested by management to do so.

“In their meetings with the Review Team, both officers emphasised their adherence to social distancing apart from the time spent congregated for the photograph.”

After the selfie: The review concludes that after the photograph was taken, it cannot exclude that minor breaches of social distancing guidance may have occurred.

It said that in this time, those present dispersed into a range of activities, including some officers standing in small groups discussing the outcome.

Others watched the press conference happening at Government Buildings, returned to desks and sent emails or made phone calls, prepared material for a Cabinet meeting and began to pack up their belongings.

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