Fine Gael senator says guidelines not law breached at Zappone event

Hospitality sector did not know 200 people could gather outdoors in social settings until AG confirmed

Restaurants Association of Ireland chief executive Adrian Cummins says business opportunities have been missed. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Restaurants Association of Ireland chief executive Adrian Cummins says business opportunities have been missed. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Fine Gael Senator Séan Kyne said on Thursday night that while the law was not breached at the Merrion Hotel outdoor gathering attended by the Tánaiste last month, Covid guidelines were.

He was speaking amid controversy over an outdoor function for about 50 people hosted by former minister Katherine Zappone in Dublin’s Merrion Hotel which was attended by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar.

The Attorney General confirmed on Wednesday that up to 200 people were allowed for outdoor gatherings within social settings.

On Wednesday Mr Varadkar said he was “confident” that coronavirus regulations were not breached by his attendance at the Merrion Hotel event.

The Merrion Hotel said on Wednesday it adhered to Government public health measures “at all times since the start of the pandemic” including guidelines that were in place at the time of the event on July 21st. These guidelines were since updated on July 23rd to exclude such organised outdoor events.

Mr Kyne speaking on Prime Time on Thursday night said: “The fact of the matter is the law [on outdoor gatherings] is there. And unfortunately as I said the communication of those changes were very poor or didn’t happen at all, if you like, by Government.”

“The law clearly states that the event that took place in the Merrion Hotel was lawful.”

When asked if the event was lawful, but did not meet public health guidelines, Senator Kyne said “that’s basically it”.

“The law wasn’t breached…the guidelines yes and that’s why there were meetings with Failte Eireann and representative bodies today.”

“I’m sure the Tanaiste regrets attending now [with] the furore and I’m sure former minister Zappone regrets organising it.”

Fáilte Ireland met Government officials on Thursday to update the public health guidelines and provide clarity on the operation of outdoor events. Details are expected to be discussed by Ministers on Friday.

Earlier chief executive of the Restaurants Association of Ireland Adrian Cummins said that the hospitality sector did not know until the Attorney General confirmed on Wednesday that up to 200 people were allowed for outdoor gatherings within social settings.

“It was news to our industry that we’re now allowed up to 200 people for outdoor gatherings within social settings,” he told Newstalk Breakfast on Thursday morning.

“We didn’t know that until yesterday, until the Attorney General made the announcement. We welcome the announcement, because it gives us extra capacity and extra revenue opportunity.”

The Attorney General’s advice was contained in a Government statement issued on Wednesday following a day of controversy and confusion surrounding the event organised by Ms Zappone, which culminated in her turning down a position as a Government envoy.

Mr Cummins added that he was glad the guidelines had been updated, but that in the meantime the sector had lost a lot of business. “We’ve missed a huge amount of revenue within hospitality.

“We are disappointed that it took an event for 50 people to bring this announcement around and delivered to the industry.”

It was not how the sector would like to do business, he said. “We want to make sure that we do everything right.”

Closing hours

The Government now needed to look at the closing hours of 11.30pm for industry immediately to try and provide some sort of recourse for the loss of revenue over the last number of weeks, Mr Cummins said.

The guidelines from Fáilte Ireland were not clear, he added. “Nobody knew, and there was a lot of confusion over the last number of days. We have always been instructed to look at the Fáilte Ireland guidelines, but it wasn’t there.”

Later, Minister of State Colm Brophy of Fine Gael said that the process of allowing Fáilte Ireland to clarify the guidelines for the hospitality sector should be allowed to proceed.

‘Regulations quite clear’

There were regulations “which are quite clear” and then there were the guidelines from Fáilte Ireland, he told RTÉ radio’s News at One.

The situation was changing all the time, but the guidelines needed to be “tightly” refined after they came under scrutiny, he said.

“My understanding is the guidelines were put out following consultation with the industry groups and the Government,” he added.

When asked if the Attorney General had been consulted when the guidelines were drawn up, he said he could not answer the question.

He was asked about comments made by the Archbishop of Dublin, Dermot Farrell on Wednesday.

The Archbishop said there was a “a lack of consistency” in public-health advice as he defended his decision to allow priests proceed with confirmations and communions in defiance of Covid guidelines.

Speaking on RTÉ on Wednesday, the Archbishop asked why “it’s okay to have a bash in the Merrion Hotel with 50 people present. But yet, it’s not possible for a parent to take their child along to receive the sacrament.”

On Thursday Mr Brophy said he could understand why the Archbishop was frustrated with the guidelines. “It’s not the sacrament of holy communion it’s the associated activity around them,” that was of concern, he said.

“For the greater good we are asking people not to engage in multigenerational events. The regulations and the guidelines are in place for the greater good.”

Mr Brophy also said mistakes had been made in relation to the appointment of the UN special envoy and the process by which such appointments were made would have to be examined.

“I can’t say or I don’t know if another candidate will be selected for the special envoy position.”

‘Complete shambles’

Meanwhile, the political controversy has continued with Minister of State and Waterford TD Mary Butler of Fianna Fáil describing as a “complete shambles” the handling of the appointment of Ms Zappone to the special envoy role. Ms Zappone confirmed on Wednesday she would not take up the position.

The “seasoned politicians” that are Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney “should have exercised better judgment”, Mary Butler said.

“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,” Ms Butler told Déise Today on Thursday 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.”

She said Taoiseach Micheál Martin had been completely “blindsided” by Ms Zappone’s appointment.

“The Taoiseach wasn’t aware of this appointment before it came to Cabinet,” Ms Butler told Maria McCann. “That, to me, was disappointing.”

“We are a collective Government, three parties doing our very best during the pandemic. I was disappointed. I would have expected more from Simon Coveney and the Tánaiste, two experienced politicians around a long time.”

Co-leader of the Social Democrats Róisín Shortall expressed concern about the event hosted by Ms Zappone at the Merrion Hotel, which had resulted in “an unseemly scramble” by the Government on Wednesday, she said.

Ms Shortall told RTÉ Radio One that Mr Varadkar, who had responsibility for the measures, had not seemed to know the exact guidelines. “It is very strange,” Ms Shortall said about Mr Varadkar, who attended the event.

The “attitude of certain people” who viewed themselves as “part of the inner circle” seemed to think that the rules did not apply to them, she added.

Referring to the role of special envoy for freedom of speech and freedom of expression, Ms Shortall said the role was publicly funded, but there had been no clear process in the appointment. The Government could not say now that they wanted to draw a line under the issue, she said.

Ms Shortall stressed that her criticism was not directed at Ms Zappone, who she described as “a very able person with lots of experience”. The questions were, she said, how did the position arise, was there lobbying and why was there no transparency of the process of appointment.

Minister of State Niall Collins, also speaking to RTÉ Radio One, said it would be “right and proper” for Mr Coveney and officials from his department to come before the Oireachtas Foreign Affairs committee to “flesh out” from where the idea for the role of special United Nations envoy emerged.

Mr Collins said that personally he thought the role of special envoy for freedom of expression could be positive, but there needed to be a formalised process for such an appointment.

He said it was right that Fáilte Ireland had moved to clarify the situation “post haste”. It was “an evolving situation”, he added.

The Government took on board public health advice, but there was “working friction” with the competing aims of balancing public health and the reopening of the economy.

The Fáilte Ireland guidelines, he acknowledged, did not reflect “factually” what was in the law.

Mr Collins said that people who had attended the Merrion Hotel event had to answer for themselves and make their own judgment. The Attorney General had clarified that the event did comply with guidelines, he added.

In its statement released on Wednesday on the event hosted by Ms Zappone, the Merrion Hotel said: “At all times since the start of the pandemic, we have adhered to Government public health measures including the relevant guidelines that were in place at the time of the event you reference on July 21st.

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