Irish foreign minister orders inquiry into champagne party during lockdown

The Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, has ordered an inquiry into a champagne celebration involving officials in his department at the height of the first Covid lockdown.

A photo of the celebration in June 2020 showed about 20 officials drinking Moët & Chandon champagne, without wearing masks or social distancing.

A spokesperson said Coveney had asked the department’s secretary general, Joe Hackett, to send him a report on the “impromptu gathering” by the end of the month.

The party on 17 June 2020 came as Ireland was three months into one of the strictest lockdowns in the world. Not only were indoor gatherings restricted to six people but people were not allowed move beyond their counties.

A selfie tweeted by the then secretary general, Niall Burgess, now the ambassador to France, was posted on Twitter on the night but subsequently taken down.

In his first public comments on the controversy Coveney told RTÉ that he had been made aware of the gathering after the photograph had appeared on social media. He said he had decided not to investigate at the time because officials admitted wrongdoing and he did not think it required further action.

“My secretary general at the time acknowledged that it shouldn’t have happened and it was a momentary drop of our guard, I think was what he said,” Coveney said. “This was something that had happened. It was quite public because it was put up on social media. It was taken down, there was an acknowledgement of wrongdoing if you like.

“I trusted my secretary general and I felt that clearly, what happened shouldn’t have happened. I didn’t feel that there was a need for follow-up after that.”

The current focus on the gathering appears to have been fuelled by partygate in the UK, with renewed interest in the standards adhered to by public figures during lockdown.

In the RTÉ interview on Friday Coveney was repeatedly asked about the gathering in light of the controversy in London.

“People like me and my department need to lead by example. This is something that I think many in the department are very embarrassed about and feel ashamed about, but it happened and it didn’t happen since. I think from that point of view, the lesson has been learned,” he said.

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