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Friday 8 December 2023 Dublin: 9°C
Foreign Affairs minister

Coveney: Champagne-gate pic was 'careless mistake', says in hindsight he should have raised it with officials

The Minister for Foreign Affairs has been giving evidence before the committee.


MINISTER FOR FOREIGN Affairs Simon Coveney has told an Oireachtas committee of his movements on the day that social distancing guidance was breached at Iveagh House in 2020.

The minister also said that his initial reaction to being told about a photo of the gathering on the night it had happened was that it was a “careless mistake”, but added that in hindsight he should have raised it with the secretary general of his Department.

Pressure has been put on the minister in the past few weeks over the photo taken of at least 20 officials and staff at the Department celebrating with sparkling wine in 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, and to mount a second bid for Ireland’s case if not elected on the first count.

A review was carried out by the current secretary general of the Department of Foreign Affairs Joe Hackett into the incident, and published last week. It found that social distancing guidelines were breached, and outlined that the then-secretary general Niall Burgess was to pay €2,000 to a Covid charity (Burgess took the photo in question).

The review by Hackett also found that staff were conducting “essential business” in Iveagh House on that day, and no celebration had been planned to take place that evening.

Joe Hackett

After Ireland won the UN Security Council seat bid, Coveney told the committee he went to the UN Policy Unit “for 10 to 15 minutes” to thank his staff for their work. He said that when he went to Iveagh House, “what I saw was a happy but tired group of staff”. 

He told the committee that he then returned to Government Buildings to speak with the Norwegian Foreign Minister and to respond to requests for media interviews. 

Coveney said that when told by an adviser that night that a group photograph had been tweeted out: “At the time I saw this was a careless mistake acknowledged by the secretary general”, he said, but acknowledged that in hindsight he should have raised the issue. 

With the benefit of hindsight 19 months later, it would have been appropriate for me to have raised it with the secretary general directly to understand the background to it.

Coveney said he was shown the photograph of the gathering that night, but he initially “didn’t take much notice of it”, and the next morning he was told it had been deleted. 

He said that neither he nor his advisers advised Burgess to take the photo down.

Coveney also said that he did not take a drink that night.

“This was a breach of social distancing guidelines in a workplace and should not have happened,” he said, reiterating comments he made previously.

Hackett, who appeared before the committee today as well, said in response to repeated questions about where the bottles of champagne produced by the then-Secretary General came from, said that there was no evidence that they were bought for a celebration for that evening, as was suggested.

The report found that Burgess “provided three bottles of sparkling wine from personal items he kept in his office for use as gifts and which he purchased at his own expense”.

It’s not clear that they would be used as gifts for professional or personal use.

Hackett also said that he decided not to go down the route of the civil servant disciplinary code in relation to this incident because he would not have been able to publish as much information in the report has was done last week.

Foreign Affairs Oireachtas Committee chair Charlie Flanagan and Sinn Féin's John Brady argue over what is on the agenda of today's appearance. Oireachtas

The committee appearance – called for by members of the opposition – was punctuated by members of the committee looking to raise other issues with the Minister, which was refused by the chair of the committee and Fine Gael TD Charlie Flanagan, as they were issues that were not on the agenda.

In his opening statement, Coveney praised Burgess for his work during the pandemic to fly trapped Irish citizens home from cruise ships and countries that had gone into sudden lockdowns.

He said while he wasn’t excusing the behaviour “at all”, he said the photo does not “do justice to the integrity and dedication” of the people in the photograph.

Coveney also said that two weeks prior to the vote he had cancelled travel due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and called 80 foreign ministers in an effort to shore up support for Ireland’s bid for a seat on the UN Security Council.

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