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Coveney spoke to DFA staff for 10 minutes on night of controversial celebration

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said he did not attend any champagne celebration on the day that Ireland won a United Nations Security Council seat but he has confirmed he spent 10 minutes thanking staff in his department for the success that night.

Mr Coveney has also said he had not see the breach in Covid guidelines that occurred in Iveagh House as shown in a photograph posted on social media by the department’s secretary general Niall Burgess that evening.

The Minister confirmed last week that he was not in the building when the picture was taken but had not responded to questions on whether he had attended celebrations in Iveagh House at any point that evening until today.

At least 20 senior officials and staff from the Department of Foreign Affairs celebrated with champagne at Iveagh House in a manner appearing to breach public health guidelines during lockdown last year.
At least 20 senior officials and staff from the Department of Foreign Affairs celebrated with champagne at Iveagh House in a manner appearing to breach public health guidelines during lockdown last year.

Opposition politicians have been putting pressure on Mr Coveney to clarify the matter.

Gary Gannon, the Social Democrats’ foreign affairs spokesman, said: “Simon Coveney should have learned from the Katherine Zappone controversy that he doesn’t get to decide what is and what isn’t a cause of concern in the eyes of the public. He should clarify exactly what role if any, he partook in the celebrations that occurred during the midst of a strict societal lockdown.”

Mr Gannon also asked: “Did he reprimand his officials once he became aware and if not, why not?

Labour Party spokesman on foreign affairs Brendan Howlin said it was “a most ill-judged gathering that caused offence to many people struggling to comply with Covid regulations.” He said: “A full and comprehensive statement from the Minister would be welcome.”

Sinn Féin has also criticised Mr Coveney for not clarifying if he attended the celebration after the photograph was taken with Sinn Féin spokesman John Brady saying it was “unacceptable” that Mr Coveney had not addressed the matter.

Mr Coveney released a statement to The Irish Times in response to the Opposition remarks.

He said: “June 17th, 2020, was a work day for me. At no point during that day did I attend a champagne celebration. I was in Government Buildings for the UN Security Council vote.

“It was at this time a photograph was taken at Iveagh House that showed DFA officials breaching Covid guidelines.

“I had no prior knowledge of this impromptu gathering in the workplace.

“It should not have happened and the then Secretary General admitted the mistake 18 months ago.

“The department apologised again last week for the breach.”

Mr Coveney added that after the vote that night he held meetings, calls and a press conference in Government Buildings before returning to work in his department.

He said: “I spoke to and thanked the staff involved in the UN campaign in the UN section of Iveagh House.

“I did not see the Covid breach from the earlier photograph and I was thanking our officials in their workplace on a workday for the work they had done on behalf of the State.

“After 10 minutes I returned to my office in Iveagh House to prepare for a call with the Norwegian foreign minister and for ongoing briefings on the coalition government negotiations.”

Earlier today, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said that Mr Coveney had made it clear that he was not at the event posted on social media by Mr Burgess.

He said that event “was wrong and it shouldn’t have happened but that said the apology has come from the principals involved and it was a lapse of judgment in relation to what happened there.”

Asked if there would be any disciplinary proceedings brought against anyone Mr Martin said: “We don’t intend to pursue it any further.”

The photograph of the champagne celebration was tweeted by Mr Burgess on the evening of the vote for the security council seat.

It shows himself and other staff members celebrating Ireland’s success in winning a place on the council after the first round of voting.

Members of the group were not socially distanced as many of them raised glasses of champagne.

The tweet was quickly deleted and Mr Burgess said in another post later that the photo was taken “just as the result came in and we momentarily dropped our guard. Shouldn’t have happened.”

Independent Senator Gerard Craughwell has called for Mr Burgess to be invited to the Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs to explain how the celebration took place.

Committee chairman, Charlie Flanagan of Fine Gael, has confirmed that the correspondence from Mr Craughwell looking for the invite to be issued will be considered at the committee’s next meeting.

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