Senator calls for former foreign affairs head to be brought before Oireachtas

Proposal to question Niall Burgess over June 2020 celebration to be considered in new year

A proposal to quiz former Department of Foreign Affairs secretary general Niall Burgess on a champagne celebration of Ireland's successful bid for a United Nations Security Council seat will be considered by TDs and Senators in the new year.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has confirmed he was not at the department's Iveagh House headquarters when a picture was taken at the celebration last year showing staff members who were not observing Covid-19 guidelines in place at the time.

A spokesman for the Minister said Mr Coveney was in Government Buildings at the time to watch the live vote for the security council seat and said: “The team in Iveagh House shouldn’t have gathered like that in the moment of celebration and the department has apologised.”

Mr Burgess tweeted a “selfie” photograph on the evening of June 17th, 2020, showing himself and other staff members celebrating Ireland’s success in winning a place on the council after the first round of voting.

Members of the group were not socially distanced and not wearing face masks as many of them raised glasses of champagne.

The tweet was quickly deleted and Mr Burgess said in another post later that the photo was taken “just as the result came in and we momentarily dropped our guard. Shouldn’t have happened.”

Ireland was in Phase Two of its reopening from lockdown at the time of the event. People were confined to their own counties, indoor gatherings of more than seven individuals were prohibited and people were advised to work from home if possible.

Senator Gerard Craughwell has requested that Mr Burgess be asked to appear at the Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs to explain how the celebration took place. He made the proposal in an email to committee chairman, Fine Gael's Charlie Flanagan.

Mr Craughwell said “none of us are immune from making mistakes” but he also claimed the tweet was “offensive” to people that had to bury loved ones alone, faced isolation or cancelled weddings as they “adhered rigorously” to Government restrictions. He said: “I do not believe a simple apology cuts it. An explanation is required.”

Mr Flanagan confirmed that the correspondence from Mr Craughwell would be considered at the committee’s next meeting.

The Department of Foreign Affairs apologised for the incident saying on Wednesday night it did “not meet the standards expected of it”.

A statement added that, since then, it had implemented all Covid-19 guidance and had further briefed staff to ensure rules were followed during the pandemic.

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn is a Political Correspondent at The Irish Times

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