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lockdown breach Leo Varadkar dismisses reaction to Foreign Affairs champagne party as 'overly-puritanical'

'The people who were there made a mistake, they accept that, they've apologised for it'

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Former secretary general Niall Burgess’s now-infamous selfie of the Champagne party. Photo: Niall Burgess Twitter

Former secretary general Niall Burgess’s now-infamous selfie of the Champagne party. Photo: Niall Burgess Twitter

Former secretary general Niall Burgess’s now-infamous selfie of the Champagne party. Photo: Niall Burgess Twitter

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said people can be "overly-puritanical” as he discussed the controversial champagne gathering at the Department of Foreign Affairs.  

He also said that Minister Simon Coveney should not have to resign after a report found that there was a “serious breach” of Covid-19 guidelines when 20 staff celebrated Ireland winning a seat on the United Nations Security Council.

However, Mr Varadkar has said that while “it shouldn't have happened”, people “can be overly-puritanical about these things sometimes”.

"The report on that has now been issued, and that shows it wasn't an organised party by any means, that people were there for the purposes of work and that the law was not broken,” Mr Varadkar told Newstalk.

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Tánaiste Leo Varadkar

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar

"There was a brief breach of social distancing guidelines, people didn't have to wear masks in offices at the time but they were bunched up in a photograph - that was the breach.

"That shouldn't have happened, that was wrong and there have been consequences for the people involved.

"But I think we can be overly-puritanical about these things sometimes.

"The people who were there made a mistake, they accept that, they've apologised for it and the Minister - who was not there, who had no role in organising it - I don't think it'd be fair for him to be forced to resign over something like that."

Minister Coveney has described the gathering at his department as a “serious mistake'.

But he believes the consequences for those involved “have been significant”

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The former secretary-general of the department Niall Burgess has agreed to donate €2,000 to charity, while three other officials are donating €1,000 each.

They will face no further action.

Minister Coveney told Newstalk Breakfast that context is important.

"This was not an organised gathering, this was people working in the workplace.

"But after the result of the vote came through from New York, and Ireland was elected to the Security Council, people came together for a photograph in celebration for about a minute.

"This is very different to some of the accusations in London around organised parties and so on."

He says the posting of a photo on social media by then secretary-general Niall Burgess - now Ireland's ambassador to France - was a lack of judgement.

"It was an uncharacteristic mistake: I've known Niall Burgess for a long time, he's a very experienced and very able civil servant.

"I think what's very clear from this report as well is that the Department of Foreign Affairs was taking Covid guidelines and restrictions very seriously in terms of people working from home.

"And there was an awful lot of preparations from a COVID guidance perspective to allow people to come into work this day... in order to work on getting elected to the Security Council."

Minister Coveney says he is not making excuses for the breach.

"This was a serious mistake that shouldn't have happened and I don't excuse it in any way.

"I'm just trying to put a context around what happened - This wasn't an organised party with people invited to it.

"This was a spontaneous celebration immediately after the vote that lasted for about a minute, involved about 20 people and that shouldn't have happened".

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Defence Minister Simon Coveney. Photo: Niall Carson/PA

Defence Minister Simon Coveney. Photo: Niall Carson/PA

Defence Minister Simon Coveney. Photo: Niall Carson/PA

Asked if there should be more severe consensus, as suggested by Senator Gerard Craughwell, Minister Coveney says consequences have been significant.

"The leadership there was coming from the secretary-general at the time, and I think this report points to that failing.

"I think the consequences for the then secretary-general have been significant actually.

"There's been a lot of public commentary, a lot of media commentary of this issue, he's been asked to make a financial donation of €2,000.

"I think, from a reputational perspective and from a public focus, there's been a very serious consequence for what happened."

Asked if he wished this was handled differently, he added: "I would like that this event never happened in my department, but it did".

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