Oireachtas Committee poised to decide on questioning Coveney

Foreign affairs event in lockdown prompts calls from Opposition to interview Minister

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has asked  secretary-general Joe Hackett to complete a report on the drinks affair by the end of January. Photograph:  Julien Behal

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has asked secretary-general Joe Hackett to complete a report on the drinks affair by the end of January. Photograph: Julien Behal

 

The Oireachtas Foreign Affairs Committee will discuss on Tuesday whether it should invite Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney before it to discuss the drinks had by some staff in the department on the evening Ireland was elected to the UN Security Council.

Opposition members of the committee have already indicated they want Mr Coveney to attend and answer questions about the gathering in June 2020, which was held among about 20 staff while the country was in lockdown.

The Department of Foreign Affairs has already apologised for the gathering but opposition TDs are keen to press Mr Coveney – who says he addressed staff for about 10 minutes to thank them for their work in securing the security council seat – on what he knew about it

Other members of the committee said they would ask senior officials to attend.

‘Operations room’

Mr Coveney, who declined to answer questions about the affair until recently, has asked the top civil servant in his department for a report on the matter. Secretary-General Joe Hackett is due to complete his report by the end of the month.

Officials are likely to say that the officials were gathered in the room – which had been set up as an “operations room” – because they expected to embark on an intense round of lobbying for a second round of voting. In the event, Ireland was elected on the first round of voting and the second round was not necessary. This is when the drinks took place in the same room. Staff returned to work after the drinks, officials will say, with a number of follow-up calls necessary after the result was announced.

Degree of anxiety

There is significant nervousness around Government about the controversy, which has rumbled on for weeks now, even though the photo of the event was first published – and apologised for – in 2020. Political sources believe that the issue has been resuscitated because of comparisons with the various parties in Downing Street, which have resulted in a political crisis for British prime minister Boris Johnson.

Concern in Government has grown since an interview given to RTÉ on Sunday by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar in which he stumbled through questions on the issue and suggested that an investigation might be required. Hours later, Mr Coveney’s spokesman said that he had requested a report on the affair last Thursday, though he did not mention this in another interview with RTÉ last Friday.

“Initially, he said there was no need for one, now he says there is,” Sinn Féin TD Pauline Tully said. “It’s another Katherine Zappone, basically.”