For a mistake that lasted only a minute and happened nearly two years ago, the story of the “champagne” celebration in the Department of Foreign Affairs has had a remarkable lifespan.
This is, in part, due to a certain opaqueness around exactly what happened and who was there. Government sources believe much of the controversy could have been avoided if Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney had shown an early willingness to put every fact, as he knew it, into the public domain.
Instead, it fell to Joe Hackett, the department's secretary general, to outline in detail the timeline leading up to the June 17th, 2020 gathering and the events afterwards.
In his review, Hackett paints a picture of staff gearing up for a potentially hectic 17-hour-period. They were hitting the phones at the last minute in the hopes of nudging Ireland towards a seat on the UN Security Council, and believed an intensive overnight campaign could be needed in the event of a second ballot.
Staff working in the UN policy unit, and colleagues involved in the campaign, made prior arrangements to be in Iveagh House following discussions by video conference with senior managers.
Some staff told Hackett’s team they brought food and overnight bags because they might possibly have had to work through the night.
The option of using the department’s “crisis centre” in Lower Mount Street was discussed, but it was decided that the main office, and its open plan area, would be adequate to ensure social distancing happened given other staff were working from home due to Covid-19 advice.
Hackett’s review finds a “minor administrative error” was made at this point because there is no record that a specific “safe working group” was contacted about the plans in advance.
The review says staff started arrived from 7am, with others working from home before coming in that afternoon. Social distancing guidelines, it states, were followed. Members of management were present and occasionally verbally reminded staff about the pandemic rules.
Two additional large TV screens were set up in the open plan area so everyone could watch the vote unfold in a socially distant manner. There were calls being made seeking updates on voting intentions, officials preparing briefing notes for press conferences, and preparations for what to do in the event of a second round of voting being needed.
Prior to the outcome being announced, Coveney passed through on his way to Government Buildings, where he planned to watch the vote.
When the result of first round, and Ireland’s success in the process, was announced, there were 21 staff in the open plan space and adjoining offices.
There were questions about why a baby was visible in the photograph of the gathering, and the review found this was because two staff involved in the campaign were on maternity leave, and one had a nursing child with her.
Following the positive outcome, then secretary general Niall Burgess went into his office and found three bottles of sparkling wine. He had bought them for use as gifts, the review states, and the team were offered a drink.
One more bottle of sparkling wine was retrieved from the office of another staff member. No other alcohol was supplied on the evening, the review states, and none was taken from the department’s own stock.
Burgess raised a toast and took two “selfies” at 9.18pm. He asked his team to “gather in close proximity” so he could get them all into the picture. The whole thing, according to every account given to the review, lasted one minute.
Afterwards, the group dispersed to different parts of the office. Some went back to their desks to work or deal with the media, others were watching a related press conference at Government Buildings.
‘More relaxed atmosphere’
Those present recalled standing in a “more relaxed atmosphere” as they talked about the outcome.
After the press conference ended at around 10pm, Coveney returned to Iveagh House and visited the team, congratulating and thanking them for their efforts.
He was present in the open place space for around 15 minutes, with the review team stating that it received “no evidence that public health advice was breached at that time”. The team then began to depart, with everyone gone by around 11pm.
Overall, the review finds that while the breach was brief, it was serious. It also found that as some staff members also stood in small groups discussing the outcome, the review would not exclude the possibility that “minor breaches” of the social distancing guidance may have occurred.