Coveney ‘didn’t take much notice’ of Covid-19 rule-breaking photo

Minister for Foreign Affairs says different course of action likely ‘with benefit of hindsight’

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has acknowledged that he should have confronted his department's then secretary general about an event that violated social distancing guidelines.

Speaking to an Oireachtas committee, Mr Coveney said "with the benefit of hindsight 19 months later, it would have been better to have raised it with him".

He said he "didn't take much notice" of the photograph tweeted by Niall Burgess at the time of the event at Iveagh House on June 17th, 2020, that he didn't instruct the secretary general to take down the tweet and that he didn't speak to him about it.

Mr Coveney was attending the foreign affairs committee to answer questions about an event at the department during which officials gathered for a glass of sparkling wine in breach of social distancing guidelines.

“This was seen as a careless mistake and the agenda moved on,” said Mr Coveney. He later added that “nobody was raising it inside or outside the department, to be honest”.

But Mr Coveney acknowledged repeatedly that he should have raised it at the time. He did not have a drink and there were no breaches of social distancing guidelines when he was present briefly at the gathering, he said.

Mr Coveney rejected the suggestion from Sinn Féin that there had been a “cover-up”.

“There was no cover-up,” he said. “You have a detailed report with a lot of documentation to back up its conclusions . . . and we’re here to answer questions. This was a very public mistake and there was a very public acknowledgement of that.”

In response to Fianna Fáil Senator Catherine Ardagh, current Department of Foreign Affairs secretary general Joe Hackett – who compiled a report on the events which was published last week – said he had decided to ask Mr Burgess for a €2,000 contribution to charity and three other senior officials for a €1,000 contribution. He said these were not fines, and he had no power to issue fines.

Mr Hackett said he had decided against instituting disciplinary processes against anyone involved, in part because of the public interest in the case.

A disciplinary process, he said, “would have been entirely confidential” and he would have been precluded from offering any updates or explanations of the events. “I just made a judgment call . . . that it was better to deal with the issue in this way,” he said.

Reluctance to punish

Mr Hackett said there was “no culture of widespread consumption of alcohol for personal use” in the department. “That’s just not the case,” he said.

Asked about the attendance of two women members of staff who were on maternity leave, Mr Hackett said that they had attended to offer any advice or assistance they could. He said it is “an important part of our gender equality strategy that women on maternity leave can keep in touch with the work of the department”. He added that he was not prepared to make a “negative finding” against them.

Mr Hackett was pressed on the point by Solidarity-People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy. He asked if the women had come in to attend a celebration. Mr Hackett replied that he was reluctant to discuss the role of individual officers, especially women who were on maternity leave and who had attended on the evening to be of assistance if they could.

“This wasn’t an event. It was people at work, doing work,” said Mr Hackett. They were happy with the result and the decision to take a photograph, and breach social distancing guidelines, was “spontaneous”, he said.

Mr Hackett did not specify what kind of sparkling wine was served.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times

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