Varadkar and Zappone pictured in 2017. Leah Farrell/
Covid guidelines

Merrion Gate: Taoiseach and Tánaiste called on to explain 'grubby little episode'

The government yesterday said that outdoor events of up to 200 people can take place.

LAST UPDATE | Aug 5th 2021, 5:42 PM

THERE HAVE BEEN calls for Tánaiste Leo Varadkar to make a further statement on the Katherine Zappone controversy and the advice from government that outdoor social events of up to 200 people are permitted under Covid-19 regulations. 

Zappone announced yesterday that she will not take up a UN Special Envoy role after it was revealed that the former minister had held a large social event outdoors at Dublin’s Merrion Hotel at which Varadkar attended. 

In a statement yesterday evening the government said the Attorney General had advised that such events are legally allowed.

The nomination of Zappone to the position by Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney had already proved controversial, with Coveney himself admitting that Taoiseach Micheál Martin had not been told about it before the nomination was raised at Cabinet

Zappone was formerly an independent TD and a minister in the 2016-2020 minority administration headed by Fine Gael. 

Varadkar said in a statement that he was “present for about 45 minutes” at the Merrion Hotel event and that he “confirmed in advance directly with her, and with the hotel management on arrival, that the event was compliant with Covid regulations”.

Speaking to reporters this morning, Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane said that Varadkar has more questions to answer. 

“The Tánaiste is at the centre of this scandal, he needs to make a statement in my view today, he needs to make a statement as to why he attended the event in the Merrion Hotel, he needs to make a statement as to why we’re now seeing a scrambling by government to retrospectively approve the guidelines or change the guidelines or interpret the guidelines to justify an event that took place,” the Waterford TD said. 

It’s very telling that we’re not hearing from any government representative. It’s very telling that nobody from Fine Gael is making themselves available to the media. It’s also very telling that the industry itself, the hospitality industry, were unaware of the fact that up to 200 people are permitted for a social event outdoors in a pub or restaurant or hotel.

The CEO of the Restaurants Association of Ireland has said the industry was not aware that up to 200 people could attend outdoor events, and said the sector was owed an apology.

Adrian Cummins told Newstalk: “There’s a lot of businesses that have turned away a lot of business over the last number of weeks because they did not know, through the Failte Ireland guidelines, that they could have up to 200 people at an outdoor event.”

Speaking on RTÉ’s News at One today, Fine Gael TD and Minister of State in the Department of Foreign Affairs Colm Brophy said he would like “clarity” on the guidelines from Fáilte Ireland. 

Brophy refused to say that Fáilte Ireland’s guidelines had been incorrect but that regulations have been “changing” frequently. 

“What we have is, between the regulations and the guidelines, we have a lack of clarity and that has been acknowledged. So what we’re now going to do is going through the actual guidelines and through the work of Fáilte Ireland, who are meeting I believe today, we will have more clarity,” he said. 

Brophy also said that he did not know whether Fáilte Ireland had checked with the Attorney General before issuing its most recent guidelines.  

Speaking about the government’s decision yesterday to release a statement quoting Attorney General advice, Green Party TD Neasa Hourigan said it sent out the wrong message.

Hourigan said the Attorney General was “technically correct”, but it was not in the spirit of the public health advice and had sent out the message “that it’s OK for 200 people to get together in a field and have a party”.

“I have to say the thing I’m sorriest about is the intervention of the Attorney General yesterday. I think that was incredibly unhelpful,” Hourigan told Newstalk.

I think the message that has gone out now is that it’s OK for 200 people to get together in a field and have a party.

Social Democrats co-leader Róisín Shortall compared the saga to last year’s ‘Golfgate’ controversy in that it appeared to demonstrate a more lax attitude to the rules among “an elite in Irish society”. 

“This grubby little episode suggests there is a prevalent attitude, among an elite in Irish society, that there is one rule for the little people and another for them. It is possible to host an event for scores of political insiders at a swanky hotel, but communions and confirmations are deemed too dangerous to proceed while wedding parties cannot exceed 100 guests – even if they are held outside,” she said. 

We now learn that everybody was working from a misplaced understanding of the law. Instead of the numbers for outdoor social gatherings being strictly curtailed, it is actually possible to host an event with up to 200 people. Curiously, this revelation was only made public after the Tánaiste himself attended a private function in a five-star hotel with 50 guests.

Speaking RTÉ’s Today with Claire Byrne programme, Fianna Fáil TD Niall Collins acknowledged that government advice to people “could have been made clearer”. 

Another Fianna Fáil representative, Minister of State Mary Butler, told WLR FM that the way the Zappone nomination was handled was “a complete shambles”. 

“I’m not questioning, for one moment, the bone fides of Katherine Zappone, though she exercised good judgment by not accepting the position. But to be honest, it’s very, very disappointing what has transpired in the past week,” Mary Butler told Deise Today this morning.

“It’s a complete shambles, I’m not going to try and pretend it isn’t. I can understand why people are so upset.”

Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín TD said the government was essentially trying to tell people that Covid-19 guidelines prohibiting such gatherings “were all a dream”. 

“Ireland has entered the twilight zone in relation to what was the law for large social events. It is very clear that everyone from ministers to the hospitality sector to newlyweds to families organising funerals, to families with children for Holy Communion and confirmation that guidelines prohibited organised social events of up to 200 people. The Fáilte Ireland guidelines stated in in black and white,” he said. 

Independent TD Michael Collins said that he and the Rural Independents Group were calling on Taoiseach Micheál Martin to “break his silence” over the controversy. 

“We are calling on the Taoiseach to come out of hiding and issue a crystal-clear public statement on this entire matter. He must also make himself available to answer questions and address why the Zappone organised party, is receiving such special protection from the current government. He must also address the links between that party and her appointment as special envoy, six days later by the Cabinet, Collins said. 

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