Need for social distancing stressed as DFA staff planned gathering for UN vote

Internal emails show that Department of Foreign Affairs staff planned to gather to watch the outcome of the vote on Ireland’s bid for a place on the UN Security Council, but that the need to remain socially distanced was repeatedly stressed in the days before.

After the result of the vote, which went in Ireland’s favour, emerged, staff gathered for a drink together in Iveagh House, Dublin 2, which violated the social distancing rules in place at that stage of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The circumstances around gathering have put political pressure on Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, who has asked the department’s top civil servant Joe Hackett to compile a report on the matter.

Documents seen by The Irish Times show that while plans were in place for staff to watch the results come in, they were also conscious of the social distancing rules in place at that stage of the pandemic.

Plans were being put in place as early as June 12th, 2020, five days before the vote, the emails show.

“We hope to have a group gathered at the Mission [the United Nations mission, in New York], and in Conference Room (War Room!), socially distanced of course,” one states.

Second round

On the day before the vote, staff were making arrangements to work on the evening of the ballot and, if necessary, into the night and early morning to lobby for support in the event of a second round of voting being needed.

“Plenty of desks to go around – we won’t be able to sit in our usual spots anyway,” one wrote.

The private secretary to the then department chief Niall Burgess wrote that the secretary general was “happy to watch the result down the back of the political open plan [office] in the ‘thick of it’”.

Another replied to say that they would proceed on that basis for the moment, but added: “It is possible that we will move locations to allow for viewing of the announcement in a group, given social distancing measures.”

Officials were also frequently reminded of the guidance for working under the Covid-19 restrictions in place then, with on-site working and meetings only permitted where necessary and if approved by the secretary general or other senior officials.

The event came to light when Mr Burgess tweeted a picture of staff with drinks celebrating Ireland’s election to the security council.

The tweet was quickly taken down and the department apologised, but resurfaced last Christmas and became a source of political controversy.

The report by Mr Hackett is due to be completed by the end of this month, and Mr Coveney is likely to be questioned about the events at the Oireachtas foreign affairs committee.

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