Garda will not investigate Covid-19 breaches at Department champagne gathering

Breaches of public health regulations have a six month statute of limitations

There will be no criminal investigation into a gathering at the Department of Foreign Affairs which breached lockdown protocols, the Garda has said.

The June 2020 event, which was held to celebrate Ireland winning a seat on the UN Security Council, was the subject of an internal inquiry which reported its findings on Tuesday.

The report found “a breach of social distance guidance occurred” when Department staff came together physically to celebrate the win but that the celebration had not been organised in advance.

The report says that the “nature of the response to the outcome of the vote was wrong.”

“It has caused offence, inflicted reputational damage on the Department and undermined internal morale.”

A Garda spokesman explained on Monday that, because the party occurred over a year ago, the Garda is unable to investigate the matter due to the statute of limitations.

Under the Health Act 1947, breaches of Covid regulations are summary matters meaning they have a six month statute of limitations.

"Given the time that has elapsed, An Garda Síochána will not be undertaking an investigation in this matter," the spokesman said.

Even if a Garda investigation was possible, it is unclear what it would examine, based on Monday’s report. Social distancing guidelines do not have a legislative basis and breaches are not criminal offences.

“An Garda Síochána had/has no role in the enforcement of Public Health Guidelines”, the Garda said.

Photograph

The gathering was captured in a photograph taken by then secretary general at the Department, Niall Burgess, which showed a group of about 20 officials huddled in an office at the Department's headquarters, drinking bottles of Moët & Chandon without face coverings or regard for physical distancing..

The photograph was posted on Twitter but was subsequently removed.

The report says that by “providing alcohol and organising a group photograph, the then secretary general was largely responsible for facilitating the breach of social distance guidance that occurred.

“He also placed colleagues, particularly more junior ones, in a difficult position. His actions were uncharacteristic errors of judgement. He sincerely regrets this.”

Mr Burgess has now been asked to make a donation to a charity providing assistance to people affected by Covid in the amount of €2,000. The three other senior officials involved have been asked to make a similar donation in the amount of €1,000. All have agreed to do so.

On Tuesday, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney dismissed a Sinn Féin call for an independent inquiry into the matter.

"I don't see what else there is to know here," Mr Coveney told RTÉ radio's Morning Ireland. "Clearly this shouldn't have happened. It was a moment of celebration that was careless."

The Minister, who was not at the event, said he understood that people had been very annoyed.

Mr Coveney said that when he arrived later a member of his staff told him about the photograph that Mr Burgess had tweeted. It was taken down, but not at Mr Coveney’s request, he said.

Mr Coveney said he did not speak to the then secretary general, saying “I trusted him”. However, he accepted that, “with the benefit of hindsight, knowing what I know now”, he would have spoken to him.

“This event was completely uncharacteristic,” he added.

Mr Coveney said it was the responsibility of the secretary general to deal with what he saw as a “workplace mistake”.

The Minister added that "any fair-minded person will view this as a fair report" when asked about the independence of the review, which was carried out by the Department's current secretary general Joe Hackett.

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime Correspondent of The Irish Times

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