Officials raised concerns at plans for garden party to mark UN success

Plans made before department had internal guidelines for events held during pandemic

Officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs raised concerns about plans to hold a garden party at its Iveagh House headquarters to mark Ireland winning a seat on the United Nations Security Council.

The event in July 2020 went ahead about a month after the night of the UN vote when then secretary general Niall Burgess tweeted a controversial selfie showing staff gathered together indoors with sparkling wine, failing to practise social distancing.

The garden party was in compliance with Government Covid-19 guidelines at the time under which 200 people were allowed to gather outdoors.

However, records released to The Irish Times under Freedom of Information laws show concern among officials as the drinks reception was being organised and how this planning took place before the department had finished developing its own Covid-19 guidelines for events.

After being initially postponed due to bad weather, the garden party went ahead on July 15th, 2020.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and junior ministers Thomas Byrne and Colm Brophy were in attendance along with department management and officials who had been involved in the Security Council campaign.

Split between two time slots, there were between 25 and 30 people at each session and the Ministers were present for about 30 minutes each.

Planning for the event began at the end of June 2020. Correspondence shows two staffers discussing the plans over email with one saying they believed some in the department “won’t want to do this cause [sic] ‘COVID’.”

Hospitality section

The other official replied: “Are they seriously inviting 200 to the garden though – after that tweet!!” – an apparent reference to the social media post by Mr Burgess.

The first official replied: “No it’ll be like 80 all internal and the guidances [sic] allow groups of up to 200 outdoors now.”

An email from Mr Burgess’s office to the department’s hospitality section on June 30th outlined how there was a wish to hold “a small drinks reception” for the campaign team in the garden of Iveagh House. It said: “The event will be compliant with government guidelines”. The email included a request for arrangements to be made for wine, beer, ice, soft drinks, glassware and tableware as well as for one member of waiting staff to be present.

A protocol section official responded saying that the direction from the head of corporate services, Austin Gormley at that point, "has been that no events are to be scheduled". She said "We are still waiting for appropriate guidance from the Safe Working Group on how events can be safely arranged in the future." She added: "We will reflect on how best we can, remotely . . . assist your office with this request."

An official from the property management unit (PMU) – forwarded the request to arrange the reception to other colleagues, writing: “Looks like CSD [Corporate Services Division]/PMU is being put in the firing line here.”

He told health and safety manager Joe Fox that the PMU would need guidance about the event "before taking any action".

‘Need for limits’

The same PMU official separately asked Mr Gormley if he was aware of the event, with Mr Gormley replying: "I'll talk to the SG [secretary general] about it – not convinced frankly." The following day the PMU official emailed a colleague saying: "I gather from Austin that conscious of the need for limits and restrictions including social distancing due to Covid-19 the SG nevertheless wishes to go ahead with this event." He asked the colleague to "facilitate it as required".

On the previous evening, the protocol section official said in an email that a drinks delivery could be made. She also said that “preparations for Covid-compliant events in Iveagh House are not at an advanced stage”. She suggested that consideration be given to “whether a waiter is necessary”. No waiter was hired for the occasion. The department said that “designated staff members poured refreshments”.

The drinks order was placed for red and white wine, beer and soft drinks and the sum spent was €439.45.

On July 3rd, the health and safety manager, Mr Fox, set out a list of required protective measures for the garden party including contact tracing for all attendees, completion of self-declaration forms and social distancing.

The department told The Irish Times: “It is standard procedure when planning an event to seek views and input from relevant officials.

“In planning this event, input was sought from the Safe Working Group and other officials who provided relevant advice.

“Some questions and concerns were raised and these helped inform planning to ensure the event was compliant with public health guidance in place at the time.”

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn is a Political Correspondent at The Irish Times

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