Midnight tweet quoted as government apology for DFA’s champagne party
5 hrs ago
A midnight tweet addressed to a single social media user by the former chief of the Department of Foreign Affairs has been described as a “public apology” by officials.
In an effort to downplay the controversy over a champagne party which breached Covid restrictions in June 2020, the department said ex-secretary general Niall Burgess made a “public apology” the “very next day”.
However, it later confirmed the apology was a late-night tweet from Mr Burgess to a Twitter user with 240 followers.
The person had criticised the lack of social distancing in a photograph of around 20 departmental staff celebrating Ireland winning a seat on the UN Security Council.
In a statement apologising for the party yesterday, the department said: “The then Secretary General publicly apologised for the gathering the very next day on 18 June 2020.”
Asked for details of this apology, the department pointed to a social media engagement between Mr Burgess and another user of the platform at 12.09 pm on June 18.
“You’re absolutely right Sheila,” he says in reference to the ‘selfie’ photograph he took of his colleagues.
“This was taken just as the result came in and we momentarily dropped our guard. Shouldn’t have happened!” he added.
The Department of Foreign Affairs has now formally apologised – having initially issued a statement which contained no apology.
A spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said he was in Government Buildings with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the time the photograph was taken. They were watching the security council vote.
“The minister was in Government Buildings with the Taoiseach at the time of that photograph.
“They watched the vote in the Sycamore Room as there was a live link to the UN and the Irish Rep,” he said.
“We were aware that the team was in work, it was a work day and they were there to work through the night if it came to a second vote. It didn’t come to that and, as the department says, they should not have gathered like that in that moment of celebration,” Mr Coveney’s spokesperson added.
At the time, Government-imposed Covid restrictions prohibited indoor office parties.
A photograph from the event shows the group huddled closely together in an office at the department’s headquarters, drinking bottles of Moët & Chandon without face coverings or regard for physical distancing.
The department has blamed “a moment of happiness” for the incident and insisted that “lessons have been learned”.
People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy likened the event to the controversial Oireachtas Golf Society dinner which led to the resignation of EU Commissioner Phil Hogan and Agriculture Minister Dara Calleary.
The country was in the midst of a strict lockdown in response to a surge in Covid-19 infections at the time of the party.
People were confined to their own counties, and indoor gatherings of more than seven people were prohibited.
People were also asked to work from home where possible, and many were unable to attend the funerals of loved ones due to a limit of 25 on the number of people who could attend a service.
The Government had also published a protocol for returning to work, which emphasised the need to maintain physical distancing and avoid face-to-face contact in the workplace.
The photograph of the event was a ‘selfie’ taken by Niall Burgess, who was the secretary general of the department at the time but has since been appointed ambassador to France.
He tweeted the image with the caption, “Now we’re walking on air…” but deleted it shortly afterwards.
The picture also features then-Deputy Secretary General Brendan Rogers, who is now the ambassador to the Netherlands, and John Concannon, who was the head of Leo Varadkar’s controversial Strategic Communications Unit in 2017. He is now director general of the department’s Global Ireland division.
A small baby is also present at the event.
Details of the champagne party at Iveagh House have emerged as a similar controversy involving social gatherings at departmental offices continues in the UK.
An investigation is under way and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has faced calls to resign following reports of a Christmas party at Downing Street last year, as well a social gathering at the Department for Education and a leaving event for a No 10 aide.