Government struggles to keep a cork in DFA ‘sparkling wine’ scandal

It will take a long time for the stench of shame to leave the marbled halls of Iveagh House.

Fallout from the Hicc-kett Report into disastrous drinking at the Department of Foreign Affairs is still being assessed by shocked diplomats in St Stephen’s Green. Anger and suspicion stalks the corridors as staff struggle to keep a cork on the scandal while wondering who amongst them blew the whistle.

Because somebody had to tell the author that the alcoholic beverage produced by the DFA’s boss to celebrate Ireland winning a seat on the UN Security Council was not, in fact, champagne. It was “sparkling wine”.

Dear God, if word gets out, our ambassadors and envoys will be the laughing stock of the diplomatic world. Can they ever hold their heads up again on the cocktail circuit?

It’s a slippery slope and it starts with sparkling wine.

What next? Haribo instead of Ferrero at the ambassador’s parties?

The distressing fact is recorded for posterity in Joe Hackett’s report. The new secretary general of the Department was asked to look into the incident on a Wednesday night in June 2020 when Covid-19 regulations were briefly breached by the team working on the UN champagne, oops, campaign.

After news came through from New York that the Irish bid was successful, the then secretary general, Niall Burgess, broke out the booze and called his previously socially distanced team to bunch up together for a victory toast and selfie. Which he then posted on Twitter until somebody called him out and he hastily took it down.

That’s the Department of Foreign Affairs for you, where they only take the brightest and the best. Brains to burn.

Eighteen months later and the episode suddenly explodes like a magnum on a Formula One podium. Simon Coveney, the patrician Minister for Foreign Affairs, is so shocked that the bottle may have contained prosecco that it takes him forever to commission a report.

In the meantime, Burgess has moved on to become Ireland’s ambassador to France where, presumably, the bottles of bubbly he now keeps in his fridge to give to people as gifts will not insult the sensibilities of his host nation.

Infamous toast

With the Hicc-kett report finding that a “serious breach” of social distancing regulations occurred during that infamous toast to our UN triumph and the new sec gen requesting that the former sec gen make a donation of €2,000 to a Covid-19 related charity because he was “largely responsible” for serving sparkling wine in Iveagh House during a pandemic when people had already suffered enough, Opposition TDs wasted little time complaining that the report was inadequate.

Of course, a donation sounds so much better than a fine, which is what was slapped on ordinary Joes by the Garda when they transgressed the Covid rules. A point which Solidarity-People Before Profit deputy Paul Murphy has been making for some time and one which he made again on Tuesday.

But Sinn Féin were straight out of the traps before the Dáil reconvened with a call on the Taoiseach to establish an independent investigation into the “champagne party” (four bottles, 20 people, a disgrace to the diplomatic profession). Mary Lou McDonald steered clear of the subject during Leaders’ Questions but her second in command, Pearse Doherty, got stuck in during the Order of Business. Micheál Martin was in no humour to entertain him.

The Donegal TD repeated the call for an independent investigation and also asked the Taoiseach to “move swiftly” to make sure Coveney – who told Morning Ireland earlier in the day that he is accountable to the Dáil – appears before the House this week to make a statement and to answer questions on the “rule-breaking champagne party”.

Micheál replied that he was satisfied with the report and would not be ordering any further inquiry. As soon as he was made aware of it, he said what happened in Iveagh House was wrong and should never have happened and he noted that the people involved apologised.

“But, deputy Doherty, I’m genuinely taken aback by your tone and attitude,” he countered. “You’re the deputy leader of a party that invited almost 2,000 members and supporters onto the streets of Belfast and then to a political rally, essentially, in the cemetery at a time when the ordinary men and women that you speak about were limited to 30 people at a funeral.”

Highly affronted

He was making the point that Sinn Féin politicians are quick to loudly shout the odds over the transgressions of others but they get highly affronted to the point of apoplexy when taken to task for organising and subsequently defending the carefully choreographed show-funeral of former IRA enforcer Bobby Storey in Belfast.

A brief and disappointingly tame contravention of the Covid-19 regulations (Iveagh House is no Downing Street) bears no comparison to what was a paramilitary show of strength involving hundreds of mourners, many in black and white uniforms and many of whom were bused in for the occasion.

But how dare Micheál Martin impugn his memory.

“You don’t care that there’s a grieving family in the middle of this here,” fumed Pearse.

“Comparing a champagne party to a funeral. Scandalous!” bellowed Matt Carthy.

“Shameful!” roared Padraig MacLochlainn.

“The Taoiseach’s attempt to compare a champagne party with the funeral of a friend is disgraceful,” cried Pearse, beside himself as the Sinn Féin benches howled in indignation over Bobby, the nicest IRA hardman you’d ever have the misfortune to meet in a dark alley.

The Ceann Comhairle threatened to suspend the hearing. There was a vote. The row continued on. Eventually, with Pearse Doherty demanding an answer on Coveney appearing before the Dáil, the Taoiseach said he won’t be revisiting the matter “regardless of what he does”.

He has no idea if the Minister was to address the House “but if he does, that’s fine”. Up to himself.

Paul Murphy condemned the report as “a whitewash from start to finish”. He asked Micheál if he was going to get the Minister to come into the Dáil “or are you going to collude in cover-up”. He got no answer as the Taoiseach, true to his word, did not revisit the question.

One thing though.

Champagne IS sparkling wine.

These people aren’t diplomats for nothing. They’re good with words.

And at least the correct glassware was out on the big night in 2020.

Proper flutes.

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