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# Foreign Affairs
DFA secretary general gave staff go-ahead to gather 'in the thick of it' to watch UN vote
The go-ahead was communicated in an email from Niall Burgess’s private secretary the day before the gathering.

THE FORMER SECRETARY general of the Department of Foreign Affairs said he was “happy” for Iveagh House staff to gather “in the thick of it” to watch the UN Security Council vote that preceded a champagne party in June 2020, internal records reveal. 

The go-ahead for officials to gather “down the back of the political open-plan [office]” was communicated in an email from Niall Burgess’s private secretary the day before the event on 17 June 2020. 

It came just a week after a document was circulated to DFA staff which stated that all meetings and events should be conducted by video call rather than in person, and reminded workers to “adhere to strict social distancing guidelines”. 

Burgess’s approval for the gathering at the back of the open-plan office – which is where the photograph of 20 civil servants celebrating with bottles of champagne was taken – was greeted with slightly more caution by a third secretary. 

“We will proceed on this basis for the moment,” she replied, but noted that staff may “move locations” to watch the UN Security Council election “given social distancing measures”. 

Records released under Freedom of Information laws show that DFA staff were issued with strict Covid-19 guidelines on a number of occasions in the weeks preceding the controversial gathering on 17 June 2020. 

On 13 March, Iveagh House staff were notified that “all on-site and off-site events” were to be cancelled, and they were asked to postpone all “team events” until further notice.  

In another email forwarded directly to Burgess on 19 May, the department’s health and safety manager warned officials about the message that holding face-to-face meetings sends out to “the wider organisation” at a difficult time. 

The DFA said that no records exist in relation to the purchase of champagne or other alcohol for consumption at the Iveagh House party. It also said that no correspondence or briefing notes about the event had been sent or received by Minister Simon Coveney. 

In his email conveying the secretary general’s consent for staff to watch proceedings in the office, Private Secretary Patrick Rooney put “thick of it” in inverted commas. The Thick of It is a BBC comedy that satirises the inner workings of the British government. 

An internal investigation into incident was launched on 13 January, and is expected to conclude before the end of the month. However, there has been criticism of the fact that the probe is being headed by Burgess’s successor in the DFA. 

Speaking in the Dáil last week, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said: “The people involved have said what they did was wrong, and it was wrong. It should not have happened and was clearly a breach of guidelines.” 

Darragh McDonagh
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