Champagne event bubbling over to make Coveney look accident-prone

Minister unlikely to relish questions on drinks scandal so soon after Zappone affair

There is a mixture of bemusement and fear in the Government about the controversy over the champagne quaffing at the Department of Foreign Affairs shortly after Ireland won a seat on the UN Security Council in June 2020.

Bemusement that the issue has reignited a year and a half after it was first apologised for; and fear that controversy is escalating – Downing Street-style – into a major political mess.

The story seems certain to run for some time yet. The Oireachtas Foreign Affairs Committee will discuss on Tuesday whether to request (another) attendance by Simon Coveney to answer questions about the conduct of his department and his own decisions.

One doesn't need a long memory to recall Coveney's appearances at the committee a few months ago to discuss his abandoned appointment of Katherine Zappone. A repeat is unlikely to be a prospect that the Minister for Foreign Affairs greets with any relish. After an ill-judged first appearance, he returned for a more conspicuously contrite second stint at the committee a week later. It was a deeply damaging episode for him.

Damage caused

The memory of that controversy and the damage it inflicted on the wider Government at the time is still fresh and is causing colleagues and others to wonder if Coveney hasn't become rather too accident-prone. With a reshuffle of Fine Gael Ministers already advertised for the end of the year, there is no shortage of rivals and frenemies willing to discuss this issue. Whatever about that, Coveney's refusal to answer any questions about the department drinks over a period of weeks now seems to many people to have been a mistake.

The department itself is by turns mortified at the blunder – and irritated that so much is now being made of what most officials honestly believe to be a venial sin. Of course, there are others who are annoyed that the department was effectively dobbed in by its former secretary general, Niall Burgess, whose posting of a photo of the event (hastily deleted a few hours later) now looks like a classic social media gaffe. Burgess has since been posted as Ambassador to Paris, not exactly a hardship post. His successor, Joe Hackett, is compiling a report for Coveney.

Downing Street comparison

In such febrile political times, these controversies can take unpredictable trajectories. But it would be hard to seriously place them in the same category as the Downing Street high jinks. Colleagues who were working closely together shared a few bottles of champagne (or worse, prosecco, according to one person). Nobody organised a party; nobody danced the night away. Coveney’s involvement seems to have been limited to a brief speech.

It seems fair to conclude that the re-emergence of the controversy owes more to the comparisons with Downing Street than it does to its inherent seriousness.

As the Government faces flak in the coming days, expect it to respond with a degree of whataboutery. Ministers privately rage about the Covid infractions of their political and media tormentors. Sinn Féin rode out the controversy over the Bobby Storey funeral – only a fortnight after the DFA drinks – and RTÉ did the same over a retirement party a few months later. In both cases, the responses were apologies and no more. Ministers and officials are hopeful – but not overly confident – that a similar treatment will suffice for Coveney and his mandarins.