Q&A: Is Simon Coveney damaged by champagne controversy?

Foreign Affairs minister in hot water not long after Katherine Zappone affair
Q&A: Is Simon Coveney damaged by champagne controversy?

Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence Simon Coveney 

A majority of the Oireachtas Foreign Affairs Committee favour hauling Minister Simon Coveney in to answer questions on the 2020 ‘champagne-gate’ soiree which was in breach of Covid-19 restrictions.

Mr Coveney is under considerable political fire for his handling of this controversy which erupted over the Christmas break and his refusal to clarify his position for several days.

Eight of the 14-member Oireachtas Committee on foreign affairs have said they are in favour of requesting a meeting with Mr Coveney when the committee meets privately tomorrow and said the existing department inquiry does not go far enough.

But what is this controversy all about?

This gathering of 20 department officials took place in June 2020 on the night Ireland secured its place on the United Nations Security Council. Then secretary-general Niall Burgess procured some champagne from his own funds and took a picture of the group which he then posted on social media. The tweet was quickly deleted and he apologised. The controversy re-erupted over the Christmas break when fresh details emerged.

Niall Burgess party tweet.
Niall Burgess party tweet.

Why is Simon Coveney in the firing line?

He is the lead minister in the department and failed for more than a week to explain his movements on the night in question or whether he was aware of the party. He belatedly released a statement to the Irish Examiner stating he was not present or aware of the gathering but that he stopped by the department for about 10 minutes to congratulate the staff. He subsequently saw the offending tweet.

He appeared to resist calls for an inquiry into the party only to relent this weekend. He stands accused of being too slow to shut this controversy down.

As minister, did he sanction anyone or call for an investigation?

In an interview with RTÉ last Friday, Mr Coveney said he did not initiate an investigation 18 months ago. His party leader Leo Varadkar said on Sunday that politicians have no remit to sanction civil servants. 

However, a statement from Mr Coveney then stated that he had called on his new secretary-general Joe Hackett to conduct an inquiry which will conclude by the end of this month.

Why did Leo Varadkar not reveal this inquiry during an interview on Sunday?

In a statement to the Irish Examiner, Mr Varadkar’s spokesman said: “The Tánaiste was aware that commissioning of a report was under consideration but that a formal decision hadn’t been announced yet. So he felt it better to leave the announcement to Mr Coveney”.

Is Simon Coveney damaged by this affair?

Undoubtedly, the fact that Mr Coveney is again in hot water so soon after the Katherine Zappone affair — her appointment by Mr Coveney to the role of special envoy to the UN without advertising the role — has certainly damaged his standing within Fine Gael. Some within the party are seeing him as a candidate for demotion.


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