Up to 200 people allowed at ‘organised’ gatherings, says Government amid Zappone controversy

Varadkar confirms he was one of those who attended outdoor hotel event hosted by ex-minister

File photograph from 2017 of then minister for children  Dr Katherine Zappone and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

File photograph from 2017 of then minister for children Dr Katherine Zappone and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

 

The Government says it is seeking to bring clarity to the rules on outdoor events in the wake of controversy over a gathering held by former minister Katherine Zappone.

Guidelines on outdoor events will need to be updated “to ensure that people have clarity” on the gatherings, the Government conceded.

In a statement on Wednesday afternoon, the Government Press Office said that advice from the Attorney General was that organised events and gatherings could take place for up to 200 people “including social, recreational, exercise, cultural, entertainment or community events”.

“Further updates will be made to the guidelines to ensure that people have clarity about how organised outdoor events may operate into the future.”

The statement follows the decision by Ms Zappone to step back from her role as special envoy for freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

The decision followed days of controversy over the manner of her appointment, which took a fresh turn on Wednesday when it emerged in a story in the Irish Independent that Ms Zappone had arranged a social event for 50 people at the Merrion Hotel in Dublin.

The hotel said the gathering was held in line with guidelines for such events.

However, the issue has prompted debate about different interpretations of the Government’s public health advice.

On Wednesday, Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Dermot Farrell contrasted Ms Zappone’s event with the treatment of First Communions and Confirmations.

“You know it’s okay to have a bash in the Merrion Hotel with 50 people present. But yet, it’s not possible for a parent to take their child along to receive the sacrament,” he told RTÉ Radio One.

Attendees

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar confirmed in a statement that he was one of those who attended the outdoor gathering on the grounds of the Merrion Hotel at the invitation of Ms Zappone.

“I confirmed in advance directly with her, and with the hotel management on arrival, that the event was compliant with Covid regulations. I was present for about 45 minutes, spoke to Ms Zappone briefly and listened to her speech before returning to work. The event took place entirely outdoors.

“I always strive to adhere to Covid restrictions and as a public representative I try to be extra careful in that regard,” Mr Varadkar said.

“Government regulations permit organised outdoor gatherings and events of up to 200 people. There were about 50 people present. The definition in the regulations includes social events as well as recreational, exercise, cultural, entertainment or community events.

“I am confident these regulations were not breached. This matter has been checked with the Attorney General.

“As the Government statement has already said, further updates will be made to the guidelines to ensure that people have clarity about how future organised outdoor events may operate.

“I accept that mistakes were made in the manner in which Ms Zappone was appointed a special envoy and regret the controversy it’s caused.”

A senior Government advisor was also among the attendees at the event hosted by Ms Zappone last month.

Dónall Geoghegan, who is joint chief of staff for Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, attended the event for a short time, a Green Party source said. He understood that the event was in compliance with public health regulations, the source said.

Labour Party TD Ivana Bacik was another attendee.

She told The Irish Times that she was “briefly in attendance for approx 15/20 minutes at an outdoor event organised by Katherine Zappone on 21st July that I understood was within the guidelines”.

There was further controversy on Wednesday evening when it emerged that Mr Ryan attended an outdoor event at a sports club last week to thank those who campaigned for the Green Party’s candidate Claire Byrne in the recent byelection.

The invitation to the event at Merrion Cricket Club on July 29th was shared in at least one WhatsApp group with over 100 members.

Sources said 50-60 people attended the event.

‘Relevant event’

Under the regulations, a “relevant event”, meaning “an event held... for social, exercise, cultural, entertainment or community reasons” can be organised if reasonable steps are taken to ensure it all takes place outdoors, that numbers do not exceed 500 in a relevant venue or 200 in a place “other than a relevant venue” and that is it “a scheduled event”, the Government said in its statement on Wednesday.

However, the regulations explicitly state that events held in dwellings, wedding receptions, sporting events or training events are not included.

Fianna Fáil senator Timmy Dooley was among those calling for greater clarity on Wednesday.

“If, on one hand, an elite group of senior people from across society can meet for a garden party of 50 in a five star hotel in Dublin, how can you tell my neighbour in East Clare that they can’t have their child confirmed or make their communion, and cannot have a number of family members to their garden for some refreshments or indeed in the garden of a local hotel, restaurant or pub?” he asked, saying the same would apply to funerals.

Government meeting

Earlier, the hospitality sector said it would seek clarification on outdoor gatherings within hospitality venues at a meeting with Government officials on Wednesday, after news of the event emerged.

Matt Carthy, the Sinn Féin agriculture spokesman, said on Wednesday that his interpretation of the spirit of the guidelines was that these types of events were not permitted, and that local sporting organisations had been “crying out” to hold fundraisers which would have been of similar size and character to Ms Zappone’s event.

“The full details of the event need to come out before people make a judgement with regards to the compliance with the rules for the event,” he said, but argued the context of Ms Zappone’s appointment as a special envoy also had to be taken into account.

The CEO of the Restaurants Association of Ireland (RAI), Adrian Cummins, said Fáilte Ireland needed to clarify the situation with regard to outdoor gatherings, he added.

“We’re all under extreme pressure to adhere to public health guidelines,” he told RTÉ Radio.

There were questions to be answered about the event hosted by Ms Zappone, he said, such as were food and beverages served. “We need all the facts on the table.”

Multiple tables could not be booked under the guidelines, he said.

The RAI was getting calls from businesses concerned about having to turn away business. “We want to make sure we’re all on the same page, that we all understand what is acceptable,” he said.

The entire sector needed to be clear about the public health guidelines. “We want to protect public health at all times.” Clarity would ensure that such confusion did not happen again, he said and he would be seeking that clarification from Fáilte Ireland at a meeting on Wednesday afternoon.