Department of Foreign Affairs apologises for lockdown champagne event

Department concedes it ‘did not meet the standards expected of it’ in June 2020

The Department of Foreign Affairs has apologised for an incident in which about 20 staff members, including then secretary general Niall Burgess, held an impromptu champagne celebration after Ireland was elected to the United Nations Security Council in June 2020.

Mr Burgess tweeted a “selfie” photograph on the evening of June 17th, 2020 showing 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 and not wearing face masks as many of them raised glasses of champagne in Iveagh House. It was a breach of Covid-19 guidelines in place at the time.

Others in the photograph included John Concannon, director general of the department's Global Ireland division.

The tweet was quickly deleted and Mr Burgess tweeted the next day apologising for the mis-step.

In a statement issued on Wednesday night, a department spokesman conceded the department did “not meet the standards expected of it”. It added that, since then, it had implemented all Covid-19 guidance and had further briefed staff to ensure rules were followed during the pandemic.

The statement pointed out Mr Burgess publicly apologised for the gathering the next day, on June 18th, 2020.

“The department did not meet the standards expected of it with this gathering and we are sorry that it happened.”

It also said throughout the pandemic the department maintained a limited presence of staff in its buildings to ensure essential services were delivered.

“The UN Security Council campaign team was working in a large open-plan area of Iveagh House throughout the day of June 17th, 2020.

“When the result of the UN Security Council vote was announced and it became apparent that Ireland had won a seat in the first round, departmental guidelines were not followed,” it said.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has not commented on the controversy. He was in Government Buildings at the time the result was announced. He and then taoiseach Leo Varadkar held a press conference in Merrion Street later that evening.

Spontaneous event

A senior source within the Coalition, speaking on the basis of anonymity, said the incident was embarrassing. The source drew a comparison with the RTÉ retirement event in 2020, saying it was something that happened spontaneously in a workplace.

RTÉ’s director general, Dee Forbes, apologised in December of last year after an internal review found some staff were found to be in breach of Covid-19 guidelines and regulations.

“Still it should not have happened,” said the source of the Department of Foreign Affairs event.

The department previously described the gathering as “a moment of happiness” after a photograph emerged.

Ireland was in Phase Two of its reopening from lockdown at the time. People were confined to their own counties, indoor gatherings of more than seven individuals were prohibited and people were advised to work from home if possible.

The Government had published a protocol for returning to work, emphasising the need to maintain physical distancing and avoid face-to-face contact in the workplace.

Mr Burgess has since been appointed ambassador to France and Monaco. He tweeted the image with the caption “Now we’re walking on air…”

Mr Concannon is former head of the disbanded Government Strategic Communications Unit.