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Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence debate -
Tuesday, 8 Feb 2022

Review of Workplace Arrangements: Department of Foreign Affairs

I welcome the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence, Deputy Coveney, and the Secretary General at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Joe Hackett, to discuss the published report into the workplace arrangements in Iveagh House on 17 June 2020. I understand the Minister and the Secretary General will be making opening statements and following this we will move to questions and answers with members of the committee.

I remind witnesses of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make that person identifiable, or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of any person or entity.

I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise, or make charges against any person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in a way that makes that person identifiable. I remind members that they may only participate in the meeting by remote means if they are physically present in offices or rooms on the Leinster House complex. I note that some members are joining us from their offices in accordance with the hybrid arrangements following Covid.

I welcome the Minister. I understand there is a parallel debate in the Dáil Chamber, which may impact our proceedings, but I call on the Minister to make his opening statement, followed by the Secretary General. I thank the Minister again for meeting us today.

I thank members for this opportunity to speak with them. I know a lot is happening today. On 17 June 2020, Ireland was elected to a seat on the UN Security Council. This was a massive achievement.

It was the successful culmination of a 15-year effort and an intense two-year global campaign by Ministers and Irish officials, showcasing Ireland's values of empathy, partnership and independence, and convincing members of the UN that Ireland would be a voice for good on international peace and security issues, representing the perspectives of small countries.

On 17 June, as planned and approved in advance, a team of officials were carrying out essential duties in the workplace in Iveagh House ahead of an announcement of the first round election voting that evening. Those officials were ready to work through the night to conduct a full campaign in the 17 hours or so ahead of a possible second round of voting scheduled to begin on the morning of 18 June, in New York, to secure a seat for Ireland.

On that evening there was a breach of social distancing guidance that has caused genuine and understandable concern to members of the committee and to the broader Irish public. This involved the publication of a photograph from the offices of Iveagh House showing some of the very same dedicated team I have just spoken of. In response to the concerns expressed, and to establish the facts of the matter, on 13 January I asked the Secretary General of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Joe Hackett, who is here with me, for a report by the end of January into the circumstances leading up to this workplace incident. I received the report, Review of Workplace Arrangements in Iveagh House on 17 June 2020, on 31 January and sent it to the committee. It was also published that day. The Secretary General, Mr. Hackett, is here today to outline for the committee the contents of the report and its findings and to take any questions members might have.

For my part, I am satisfied that the review, drawing on extensive oral and written evidence as set out in the report, provides a fair, balanced and, where appropriate, critical account of the events of 17 June 2020. I support the conclusions of the review as well as the actions taken by the Secretary General in response. The Secretary General, on behalf of the Department, has clearly acknowledged that valid public concerns were raised by the photograph and the breach of Covid guidelines and that a mistake was made, and a sincere apology was given.

I wish to take this opportunity to provide an account of my movements over the course of the day in question, as far as I can recall them over 19 months later. On 17 June 2020 I had a busy workday. I spent part of the day in Iveagh House and part of it in Government Buildings. For context, we were about a week out from forming a Government. I was involved in negotiating the programme for Government and at the time my party was considering the proposed document. I was heavily involved in those briefings too. Early on the evening of 17 June 2020 I was in Iveagh House before I moved to Government Buildings to watch the outcome of the Security Council vote with the Taoiseach. I passed through the open plan UN policy unit office space in Iveagh House on my way out. This would have been well before 8 p.m., which was the original time at which the announcement of the results had been expected. The UN team was busy working away in the various parts of the office. I recall there being a build-up and lots of expectation in advance of the vote. There was lots of nervousness too. In the previous few weeks we had had to change our campaign planning because of the pandemic. I had cancelled all travel and in-person meetings and had spoken on the phone to more than 80 foreign ministers to ask them to support Ireland's bid. Ireland was up against formidable opponents in Norway and Canada.

When we took the seat in the first round vote I was relieved and delighted with the result. I took it as an endorsement of all the campaign efforts of the Government. It was and still is an acknowledgement by other countries, big and small, that Ireland has an important contribution to make on the crucial matters of international peace and security that are central to the discussions on the UN Security Council.

After the vote, which finally came in at about 9.10 p.m., a lot later than expected, I prepared for and then attended a press conference in Government Buildings to welcome the result. The press conference was live-streamed beginning at around 9.25 p.m. and concluding at around 9.55 p.m. Following the press conference, I made my way back to work in Iveagh House and went through the open plan office to congratulate the UN policy unit team. I stayed there for about ten to 15 minutes. I saw a happy but tired group of staff after a long day. Some were packing up to go home, some had already gone home and some were on phones and computers continuing their work. After I spoke and said "thank you" to the team who had worked so hard that day, I went to my office to prepare for a call with the Norwegian foreign minister and to meet with members of my team to discuss the next morning, which included a number of requests for media interviews. We decided which ones I would do.

I was told by a member of my team that a group photograph had been tweeted. The tweet was later taken down and the mistake acknowledged by the then Secretary General, Niall Burgess. At the time, I saw this as a mistake by the then Secretary General. With the benefit of hindsight, however, I accept I should have raised the matter with him formally. I did not at the time. This was a breach of Covid guidelines in the workplace and should not have happened. The report before the committee outlines the details of what has flowed from that.

I wish to note that this mistake made by the former Secretary General was highly uncharacteristic of him. Niall Burgess is a very dedicated public servant who, during the pandemic, made a significant contribution by overseeing our response to the biggest consular emergency in the history of the State, with tens of thousands of citizens trapped or in difficulty overseas. The Department of Foreign Affairs I know is the one that had to get trapped Irish citizens off cruise ships all over the world when the pandemic was first declared. The Department I know during Covid organised charter flights from India and South America and block-booked dozens of scheduled flights with airlines to bring our people home. This is what I saw day in and day out until and beyond 17 June 2020. The team working in Iveagh House that day are those committed, hard-working and diligent civil servants. The photograph and the breach of Covid guidelines, which I am not excusing at all, do not do justice to the integrity and dedication of that group of people.

The photograph was public at the time, in June 2020, but the controversy and public anger surrounding it surfaced later, in December 2021. I asked my Secretary General, Mr. Hackett, to undertake this review and he set the terms of reference. The review focused on the breach of Covid guidelines in the workplace captured in the photograph that was tweeted that evening as well as the events leading up to it, which are detailed in hundreds of pages of emails and planning documents in the annexe to the report that was produced. I was not present for the photograph, and my interaction with the staff involved took place after the photograph had been taken. As Accounting Officer for the Department, it is the role of the Secretary General to review perceived breaches of conduct by staff in the workplace. It was right that the Secretary General was supported by senior officials in the human resources division, who are responsible for setting and monitoring standards and behaviours for staff.

This is a matter of deep regret for all involved. I hope the report, the appearance of both me and the Secretary General before the committee today, the establishment of the facts of the matter, the acknowledgement that mistakes were made and the sincere apologies of the various people involved can help us to achieve a sense of perspective on this matter and to allow us to refocus on continuing with the work the Department is carrying out, including on the UN Security Council. Ireland's winning of a seat on the UN Security Council on the evening of 17 June was the result of many years of dedication by so many and an endorsement of the values the people of Ireland uphold.

Ireland continues to play an important role in the Security Council. Last week, during a visit to Ireland, it was heartening to hear the praise for Ireland's role on the Security Council by the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, Amina Mohammed, with particular emphasis on our leadership on advancing women's leadership, peace and security, climate action, and security and peacekeeping. This reflects the excellent work by staff in the Department and at the UN in New York as well as those in the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces. We will continue these efforts over the next ten and half months or so, our remaining time on the Security Council.

I totally understand that people would look at the photograph tweeted that night and rightly have questions about what was going on.

I can understand why people would be annoyed, angry and upset, given the sacrifices they and their families have made through this Covid period. This incident should not have happened. The former Secretary General has acknowledged this, and the current Secretary General has apologised again on behalf of the Department. I look forward to members' questions and thank them for this opportunity.

Mr. Joe Hackett

I thank the committee for this opportunity to speak with it. On 13 January, I commenced a review of adherence to public health advice, workplace protocols and arrangements in place in Iveagh House on 17 June 2020. I undertook to provide a report on the matter to the Minister by the end of January. As Accounting Officer with responsibility for the proper administration of the Department, I appointed two senior officials from the human resources division to a review team to conduct meetings with staff, gather clear accounts of what happened that day and examine all relevant departmental records. I delivered the report to the Minister on 31 January and he directed that it be published that day.

I acknowledge the concern expressed by members of this committee and the wider public about the incident that occurred in the workplace shortly after Ireland was elected to a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council. As Secretary General, I would like to say sorry to this committee and to the public, and to acknowledge the offence caused. In doing so, I am particularly mindful of the enormous sacrifices made by our fellow citizens over the past two years. The image of staff within the Department celebrating has caused confusion and anger among our population, who consistently abided by extensive public health rules over a prolonged period. In the review, I acknowledge the hurt caused and reputational damage done. I assure the committee that the Department deeply regrets the incident.

The review outlines the workplace arrangements, public health advice and statutory rules in place on the day of 17 June 2020; the circumstances under which staff were present in Iveagh House; the nature of the work that required on-site presence; the circumstances whereby staff gathered in the UN unit of Iveagh House following the result of the vote; and relevant timelines. The relevant statutory regulations in place at the time were examined, as were public health and internal guidance.

Members will be aware of the detailed description contained in the review of events leading up to the result of the vote, including the efforts made to ensure that staff complied with public health guidance throughout the day. Staff watched the announcement in a large open plan office space in Iveagh House. The result came through at 9.10 p.m. and staff came together briefly to celebrate the outcome. The incident was captured in the photograph taken by the then Secretary General. Thereafter, the group dispersed. Some returned to their desks to continue work, some watched a press conference from Government Buildings, some stood in small groups discussing the outcome and others prepared to leave. The Minister has provided the committee with a detailed account of his attendance in Iveagh House on that date. The review team received no evidence that public health guidance was breached during his presence in the UN policy unit to thank staff for their work.

Based on meetings with staff, and an examination of substantial amounts of documentary evidence annexed, six conclusions were reached. First, staff working in Iveagh House on 17 June 2020, many of whom had come to the office prepared to work through that night, were conducting essential business on behalf of the Department relating to Ireland’s campaign to secure a seat on the UN Security Council. Second, no event was planned to celebrate the success of Ireland’s election. Rather, planning was focused on the work that would have been required that evening, overnight and the next day if Ireland had not been successful in the first round of voting. Third, extensive measures were taken to facilitate compliance with Covid guidance in advance of 17 June. Fourth, in the hours leading up to the announcement of the vote result, public health guidance was observed. Fifth, there was a serious breach of social distancing guidance in the period immediately following the outcome of the vote, lasting approximately one minute, when staff came together, many with glasses of alcohol in their hands, for a photograph. Sixth, in the period following the photograph, those present dispersed into a range of activities, during which some minor breaches of guidance may have occurred.

I concluded that the then Secretary General was largely responsible for facilitating the social distancing breach and I requested that he make a donation to charity in the amount of €2,000. I also asked the three other management board level officers present in the photograph to make a similar donation in the amount of €1,000. They did not actively facilitate the breach of guidance but could, as senior managers, have tried to prevent its occurrence. Each of the officials concerned agreed make the donation as requested.

In preparing this review, I was conscious of the need for care in making judgments on the behaviour of others with the hindsight of 19 months. I am conscious that sometimes, in public controversies, assumptions can be made without due regard to the full facts. I am satisfied that the review provides an accurate account of what happened on 17 June.

My predecessor as Secretary General has been the subject of considerable public attention over the past month. I assure the committee that he sincerely regrets his actions. The incident, as captured in the photograph, should not detract from the sustained service he has provided to the country and the positive contribution he made as Secretary General. Under his direction, the Department became more open, inclusive and responsive to the needs of our citizens. Through a wide range of assignments, notably on Northern Ireland, he made an important contribution to peace and well-being on this island. I do not believe that the incident covered by the review devalues the achievement of our election to the Security Council. That remains a remarkable accomplishment by a small group of dedicated public servants.

I can understand how the photograph from that night could suggest that the Department was tone deaf to the difficulties facing a public doing their level best to comply with official guidance. However, I assure the committee that the image certainly does not reflect the values and commitment of those pictured or of the wider Department. The staff of the Department of Foreign Affairs are fully committed to delivering the best possible service to this country and its people and we have a strong track record of doing so. Our people are today serving in more dangerous and challenging locations than ever before. Whether we serve at home or abroad, our teams will continue to advance Irish interests and values, deal with the impact of Brexit and uncertainty in Northern Ireland, provide the best possible passport and consular service and manage one of the most effective development assistance programmes in the world. I thank members for their attention.

I thank the Secretary General. As our time is limited, I ask members to confine their remarks, where possible, to questions. There has been significant public and media commentary on this issue over the last couple of months. Many issues are not in dispute. We have a report from the Secretary General that has established the facts. We are dealing with facts rather than speculation. Therefore, I ask members to confine their remarks and questions to the Secretary General and the Minister, both of whom offered to come here this afternoon for the purposes of concluding all debate on this issue and drawing a line under it.

I have a series of questions for the Minister and then for the Secretary General. Who informed the Minister of the tweet with the photo of the then Secretary General, Mr. Burgess, and the other staff members? Perhaps the Minister could answer the questions as we go along.

I was informed by a member of my political staff late that evening. I was told a photograph had been tweeted out of a group of civil servants celebrating the win in Iveagh House. That was late that evening.

Does the Minister wish to name that person?

I would rather not. I do not think it makes any difference. It was a member of my own team.

Was it an adviser?

It was an adviser, yes.

Why does the Minister think the individual in question felt compelled to raise the issue with him?

I think it was seen as a mistake that should not have happened. That mistake was subsequently acknowledged by the Secretary General himself, who took the photograph down from social media late that evening.

The Minister's adviser saw it as a serious breach of Covid restrictions and raised it.

With respect, Deputy Brady, that is speculative question.

Did the Minister see the tweet before it was deleted?

I saw the photograph on a phone and, to be honest with the Deputy, I did not take much notice of it. The following morning, I was told that is had been deleted and the mistake had been acknowledged, and I left the issue at that.

The Minister saw what could have been the tweet while it was still live on Twitter.

I cannot remember the exact time I saw it but it was after I had gone back to my office when we were planning for the following day. That, along with a whole range of other things, was mentioned to me. The following morning, I was told that it had been taken down and the mistake had been acknowledged.

Did the Minister instruct the Secretary General to take the tweet down?

Did the Minister instruct someone to instruct the Secretary General to take it down?

Did the Minister's adviser instruct the Secretary General to take it down?

No, they did not.

Does the Minister know who instructed him to take it down?

My understanding is that there was an interaction on social media. The mistake was raised with the Secretary General. He acknowledged that the Department had let its guard down and that it should not have happened in terms of the crowding together. He subsequently took it down. I think it was after midnight.

The Minister said in his opening statement that he accepts he should have formally raised the matter with the then Secretary General, Mr. Niall Burgess. When did the Minister speak to Mr. Burgess about this incident or did he speak to him in any capacity?

I did not speak to him.

He did not speak to him at all.

Not about this issue, no. The reason for that was that literally the following day this issue was seen as a careless mistake and the agenda moved on. Nobody raised this issue with me in the Department. Nobody raised it with me outside of the Department until about-----

The Minister's political adviser notified him that they had serious concerns-----

With respect, Deputy Brady, that has already been covered.

That is not what I said.

The Minister did not feel the need to raise it in any capacity with the Secretary General. I find that bizarre.

Like I said, having read a report and looked at public concern and anger with regard to that image and what it represented, of course now, 19 months later, with the benefit of hindsight, it would have been appropriate for me to have raised it directly with the Secretary General to understand the background to it and how it happened. I had the kind of relationship with my Secretary General in which I trusted him. This was a workplace incident. I was not there. I had not been involved in it.

Clearly, the Minister was wrong in that assessment. Has he deleted any texts or other communications in relation to this incident?

Okay. I welcome the swift appointment of an external review of the alleged party and alleged Covid restriction breaches in McKee Barracks in June 2020, which the Minister initiated, but it seems to be double standards-----

I am not going to allow questions on that.

I am not asking any questions. I am just saying-----

I will not take any reference to that.

It seems there are double standards in the Minister's perception of accountability and transparency. Does the Minister believe that the deputy Chief Whip of his party-----

I am to deal with it.

No. I am going to-----

I made no allegations. I said "alleged".

Deputy Brady, please. You have made allegations directly against the Minister in a way that is fundamentally unfair. Members have been publicly asking questions on this issue of June 2020.

I am entitled to ask legitimate questions and these are very legitimate questions.

You are not allowed to entitled to-----

They may be a little bit uncomfortable for some but they are legitimate questions.

-----stray beyond the agenda. Members of this committee have been making public commentary in the media and the Chamber. They have been requesting that we have a hearing with the Minister and that he and the Secretary General be called before this committee to deal with the issue of June 2020. We are now doing that. We have had the full co-operation of the Secretary General. We have had a report, which is comprehensive. The Minister is present. Deputy Brady now wishes to refer to a completely different issue. I am not going to allow it.

I am making a comparison between the perception of-----

I will not allow such comparison.

-----the Minister's accountability and transparency in terms of what he initiated in one case and the process he initiated in this case - an internal review of serious Covid breaches.

Chair, I am happy to answer that question.

If I could just finish the question without any attempt to censor, does the Minister believe-----

There is absolutely no question of censoring but there is a question that we stick to the agenda.

I am doing that, Chair, despite attempts to-----

I am asking you to do it and not to depart from the agenda because I will not tolerate it.

I am sticking strongly to it.

Thank you.

Does the Minister believe that the deputy Chief Whip of his party, Deputy Brendan Griffin, and the Minister for State, Deputy Anne Rabbitte, were wrong when they stated they believed there should be a full independent inquiry into the events in question?

I believe that we have acted appropriately. I believe the appropriate person to undertake this review was the Accounting Officer of the Department, who is responsible for the staff of the Department and workplace issues. Having the Secretary General and the HR team undertake this report, completely independent of me, was the appropriate course of action. The issue to which the Deputy refers relating to an incident in McKee Barracks is an entirely different one.

I ask the Minister not to make reference to that, please. We are dealing with the issue we have been requested to deal with, namely, the issue of the evening of 17 June 2020. I call on Deputy Brady to ask a final question and then I will move on to Senator Ardagh.

This is about the double standards in terms of transparency and I am asking about the Minister's rationale. To finish-----

There are no double standards.

We will not have any reflection cast on the Minister, Deputy.

I will conclude with the Minister before I address the Secretary General.

Please conclude.

Does the Minister acknowledge that he was wrong in his attempts to cover up, in my mind-----

That is an unfair question. That is an unfair aspersion on the Minister.

-----what was a serious breach of Covid restrictions within his Department? The deletion of the tweet and the fact that the Minister did not raise it with the then Secretary General was, in my view, a cover-up. What made him after 18 months move to have an internal review?

That is an unfair slur on the Minister, which I will not accept, Deputy Brady.

Does the Minister agree that he was wrong?

I will not accept that there was a cover-up. I ask the Deputy to withdraw his allegation of a cover-up. We have a report and we have the Secretary General present to deal with any aspects of the report that require questioning. Making allegations of a cover-up and trying to move the story on is unfair.

It is not an allegation. I am entitled to my views on the deletion of the tweet, the failure to raise the matter in any capacity with the then Secretary General and the decision to only initiate an internal review after this perceived cover-up was exposed some 18 months after the event.

We already heard from the Minister in that regard. We know the answer to that question.

Does the Minister believe he was wrong in trying to keep the lid on this issue until the media got hold of it?

We know the answer to that question.

There was no cover-up here. The Deputy has a detailed report with a lot of documentation to back up its conclusions. Everybody who was involved in the incident concerned was interviewed and we are here to answer questions on it. There was absolutely no cover-up. This was a very public mistake. Thousands of people follow the former Secretary General on Twitter. This was a very public mistake and there was a very public acknowledgement of that mistake.

I have some brief questions for the current Secretary General.

On the report.

Yes. Who paid for the alcohol that was consumed at the party?

Mr. Joe Hackett

The alcohol was provided from a store that the then Secretary General kept in his office and paid for himself.

I remind Deputy Brady that there is no evidence of any party here.

May I ask some questions without consistent interruptions?

No. If the Deputy sticks to the facts, there will be no need for any interruption. Please stick to the facts.

Is there a payment record for the champagne or whatever beverage was consumed on the night?

Mr. Joe Hackett

No, because he kept it in his office over a period of weeks. There is no payment record because it was personal-----

Did Mr. Hackett seek information to establish when it was purchased, as part of his review?

Mr. Joe Hackett

No, it was his personal supply so we did not seek that.

What was Mr. Burgess doing with alcohol, specifically three bottles of champagne or whatever it was, in a drawer in his workplace?

Mr. Joe Hackett

He indicated that he kept it there for use as gifts or to mark occasions such as retirements and that when it was safe to do so outside of Covid. That is why it was-----

Is that considered normal practice?

Mr. Joe Hackett

It is considered something he did.

Is the Mr. Hackett furnished with a Visa card or anything like that? Was his predecessor, Mr. Burgess?

Mr. Joe Hackett

No, there are official cards that are provided for use by the Department but nothing like that would have been put on them.

Nothing like that would have been put on them. Any transactions like that come under the freedom of information process. I am sure any transactions from that period could be furnished to the committee if it requested them.

Mr. Joe Hackett


Okay. Does it arise that the Secretary General would be reimbursed from State coffers for the purchase of gifts such as this or alcohol for visiting guests?

Mr. Joe Hackett

Not if he had personal things that belonged to him and which he provided himself. There would be no question of reimbursement.

These were personal things. Was the intention to give them to visitors or dignitaries or what was the purpose?

Mr. Joe Hackett

The scope of this review was confined to the events of 17 June so we did not explore those kinds of questions.

That was not explored. What protocols are in place governing the purchase and offering of gifts such as these to visitors to the Department?

Mr. Joe Hackett

There is official guidance on the provision of official gifts as part of official visits. What a person might decide to do in terms of his own provision of gifts is a matter for that individual. The Deputy is right that there would not be official guidance around that.

There would not be official guidance for the Secretary General handing out gifts within the Department to visiting dignitaries or people like that. There would not be guidance for him on how to act as an individual.

Mr. Joe Hackett

No, there are two issues. There is official guidance on the provision of official gifts as part of official events. What an individual decides to do with his or her own money is entirely a matter for that individual.

Mr. Hackett thinks it might be acceptable for the Secretary General within the Department to be handing out gifts to visiting dignitaries in his own capacity without-----

We are straying from the report. There is absolutely no suggestion of any event such as that being implied by the Deputy.

I am trying to establish the purpose of the alcohol within the Department.

It is in the report.

That is a version. The Secretary General has informed us that he was solely looking at the date in question. He did not establish when the alcohol was purchased, why it was purchased or anything like that. I suggest that the alcohol was purchased specifically for the event on the night. That is what I am trying to establish. Is the Secretary General of the Department allowing gifts like this to be handed out willy-nilly without any records being kept as to whom they are given to and what perceived preferential treatment is being given? I find that bizarre. Mr. Hackett is saying that no records are kept of any gifts like this being handed out by the Secretary General.

Mr. Joe Hackett

I am saying there is a record and protocol around the provision of official gifts but what a private individual decides to do is his or her own business. There is no official guidance around that. The review found no evidence that the alcohol referred to by the Deputy was purchased specifically for use on 17 June.

Does the Minister think it acceptable that the Secretary General within his Department would or could be handing out gifts in his own personal capacity to visiting dignitaries, with no checks or balances or without protocol being in place to record it? I find it bizarre and, to be honest, I do not believe it was the position on the day in question. Does the Minister believe that it would be an acceptable practice?

The Secretary General has dealt with the matter.

I asked the Minister if he believed it is an acceptable practice for the Secretary General of his Department to be able to keep stores or supplies of alcohol, such as champagne or whatever, in a drawer in his office that he could hand out to visiting dignitaries without any checks, balances or protocols because he had purchased it himself. I do not think that is an acceptable practice.

My understanding, from reading the report, is that these bottles were purchased privately and were for private use. There was not any suggestion they were being given as official gifts to anybody.

The evidence states they were being kept as gifts. Now the Minister is saying they were for personal consumption.

I did not say that.

What did the Minister say? Was it for personal use?

That is a question for the person who was Secretary General at the time. From reading the report and the evidence given that resulted in the conclusions of the report, my understanding is that the bottles of wine involved were purchased privately and were used privately.

I thank the Minister and the Secretary General for coming before us in such a timely manner. I know we requested the meeting. We thought it would be the end of February by the time we got to meet the witnesses and get to discuss the report. The co-operation shown to the committee should be acknowledged.

Winning a seat on the UN Security Council was clearly amazing, and I would hate to see any deflection from that achievement. The Department has done an amazing job in that respect and put some serious work into winning that seat by putting time into building relations. We should not take away from that. As a committee we are always very proud to say we have a seat on the UN Security Council and when we meet any group before us, we acknowledge that we have the seat. If there is anything the committee can do to liaise with our representative, we want to do that and we use that line and link with our representative on a daily basis.

One aspect of the report shocked me, specifically that a person could donate €2,000 and receive absolution. Many people during the Covid-19 pandemic had loved ones pass away and they did not have people at the funerals. Loved ones sat outside churches because they could not go inside because of restrictions. If any of those people could have paid €2,000 to have a normal funeral, they would have done so. That sticks in the craw of many people. I do not know how the figure came to pass and whether it was a contribution or fine. If senior managers had refused to pay it would there have been a sanction? That is a question for the current Secretary General. Is there precedent in the Department to fine or sanction senior members of the Department for breaches of internal employment regulations?

I do not mean to sound glib but when the Minister addressed the group, was anybody drinking alcohol? The report indicates that the people grouped together for a moment for the picture and then dispersed immediately. When the Minister addressed them, were the people in a group? Did he address a dispersed group? I do not want to put words in the Minister's mouth. Did he have a drink to celebrate?

With respect, we are under pretty strict time pressure because of earlier contributions. We have the Senator's questions but I will take a question from Deputy Stanton before going back to the Minister and the Secretary General.

Will the Secretary General talk us through some of the detail of the evidence he uncovered? There is much in the report so will he give us an overview? How long did the group stay together for the photograph? Has Mr. Hackett ascertained that? I know he has said that some small numbers of people may have stayed together for short periods afterwards. How long was the group together in order for the photograph to be taken? Will Mr. Hackett talk us through the evidence in the report for a few minutes in order to give us an overview of what he found?

Senator Craughwell has a few direct questions.

I have some direct questions.

If there is one about the Garda Síochána, it will not be taken.

I did not intend asking anything about the Garda Síochána. On 24 August, it was reported in The Irish Times that the Minister, in an interview with 96FM in Cork, said that it does not matter if one is a Commissioner, a President, a Taoiseach, a Minister or anybody else for that matter, and the same rules should apply to everybody in Ireland.

The Minister went on to say, "The idea that certain politicians see themselves as different or that the rules don't apply to them...". I will not continue reading it but, clearly, by August, the Minister saw any breach of Covid as a most serious breach and that nobody was above the law. Does the Minister agree with that?

I assume the Senator's comment was in response to the golfgate issue, when I was trying to explain that no one is above the law. That is the context in which I made those comments. This report says very clearly that there was no breach of the law or regulations, or certainly no evidence to suggest that. There was a breach of social distancing guidelines which was not acceptable, should not have happened and has been acknowledged and apologised for.

With regard to Senator Ardagh's question, I did not take a drink on the night. When I came back to the Department, I called through the big open plan area one comes in the back of Department and walks through. That is where the UN team were. I called in. Some people were packing up to go home. It was quite late at that stage. It was approximately 10.15 p.m. Some people had gone home and others were at their desks tidying up. Some people were on the phone and others were on computers. It was a work space. That is what I saw when I came in.

Those are the two questions I was asked. I will leave the €2,000 issue to the Secretary General.

With regard to the United Nations Security Council, the Minister's statement starts off referring to 15 years work with a two-year intensive workload. Will the Minister accept we have had the United Nations Security Council every 20 years since 1960? The mathematics suggest we would have had it anyway, if not this year, then next year.

With respect, that is not a fair reflection on what was achieved. We were competing for two places in a group of three countries. The other two countries against which we were competing were Norway and Canada, two of the most popular countries in the UN. Certainly, Ireland getting through on the first round, just, was not expected by most people. It is true we have been on the Security Council before. Every 20 years, as it happens, we have successfully managed to get on the Security Council but this was seen as one of the most difficult votes Ireland has every faced in a UN vote. It is not an exaggeration to say that.

We had been successful against Italy, previously, which was a difficult contest. We have been elected uncontested at different times, as well, but this was certainly seen as a significant task to be in the top 2 in that group of three. That is why people were so up for it in the Department. That is why they were there expecting to work through the night. That is also why, even though it is not a justification, of course, people celebrated in the way they did. They were both relieved and extremely happy about what had happened and, unfortunately, let their guard down in that space.

With regard to the Secretary General's comprehensive report, he made the point in today's statement that stafff working in Iveagh House on 17 June 2020, many of whom had come to the office prepared to work through that night, were conducting essential business. By the way, it was unfair to ask the Secretary General to investigate his own staff and compile a report, having just taken over the Department. One of the staff had a child with them. Is it normal for staff to bring a child with them for essential work?

Mr. Joe Hackett

Two people there that evening were on maternity leave. Both of them were essential members of the UN policy team and essential to our ultimate success. One of them had just gone on maternity leave and had the baby three days afterwards. One of them had recently had a baby and was nursing. That is why the baby was there. Both of them were essential members of that team. They came in of their own volition. They were not asked to come in.

However, it is an important part of our maternity policy in the Department that women on maternity leave can remain connected with the workplace. That, in turn, is an essential part of our gender equality strategy. As we acknowledge in the report, I cannot sit here and say that their presence there that evening was for an essential purpose. I acknowledge that but, equally, I was not prepared to make a negative finding about them. It would have been detrimental to what we are trying to do in gender equality in the Department and a disservice to two outstanding people who were vital to our success.

It was most unfortunate there was a child there on the night, but anyway. Is the Secretary General familiar with this document?

Mr. Joe Hackett

I cannot see that document.

In fairness, Senator Craughwell is-----

It is the Civil Service disciplinary code.

Mr. Joe Hackett

I am.

The first paragraph of the disciplinary code states:

The purpose of this Code is to set out the arrangements for dealing with disciplinary matters in the Civil Service. It is also to ensure that all civil servants are aware that if there is [any] failure to adhere to the required standards of conduct, work performance and attendance, the disciplinary procedure [of] this Circular will apply.

Clearly, the breach that took place was detrimental to the Civil Service code. It brought the Department into disrepute. It brought several members of the Department into disrepute yet the Secretary General did not invoke the disciplinary procedure. Why?

Mr. Joe Hackett

That is a fair question. I thought quite a lot about that during the process. I decided not to go down that route for a variety of reasons. Had we done so, it would have been, necessarily, entirely confidential. We would not have been able to disclose the outcome of that. We would not have been able to respond to the public concern that had been created. We would not have been able, on legal advice, to publish the report we published because it could have been prejudicial. I made a judgment call that, given the level of attention this had got, there was a need to address that public concern quickly in an open way. I felt that going down the route of the disciplinary code would not have achieved that. That was my call and that is the reason.

Does Mr. Hackett accept that junior members of staff who will at some stage or who have in the past been subjected to the disciplinary procedures will feel there is one law for them and another for senior members of staff?

Mr. Joe Hackett

I hope not. I do not know what they feel. They would probably see the most senior member of the Department, the Secretary General, held to a high standard here. I can explain, in response to Senator Ardagh, the question around the donation. They would have seen the level of public scrutiny on the then Secretary General over the past six weeks and considered he paid a considerable cost for his error of judgment and mistake.

The Secretary General was promoted. Who recommended his promotion or move to an ambassador's role?

That is not an issue for this committee.

It is not. It is an issue the answer to which Senator Craughwell was told before at this committee, and which he should know.

On a different issue, but it is important, because we are talking about issues-----

It might be important but it is not one for this committee or for answer today.

I will take the Chairman's ruling and withdraw the question. I have one final point I need to address which is the news that broke today regarding another incident which is-----

That is not for discussion now, either.

I appreciate the Chairman will say he will not allow it for discussion today. However, by not allowing it for discussion today, he forces me and other members of the committee to now request the Minister to return to deal with that issue. I would much rather that we cleared it out of the way today because it is a serious matter.

We will not deal with it now because Senator Craughwell has been to the fore in requesting that this committee examine the circumstances surrounding the events of the evening of 17 June. Now, as indeed Deputy Brady has tried earlier, he wishes to shift the ground-----

That is not accurate comment. I did not try to shift any ground.

-----in order to question the Minister.

Those are the Chairman's personal views.

I will not question the authority, at all. I just want to make the point that this is a matter that hangs over us from another Department.

It is being dealt with.

It will have to be dealt with in this committee. That is unfortunate for the Minister because I know he would want to deal with it today.

To be helpful to the committee on that issue, I will be more than happy to come back and deal with that but there are many issues on which I hope to be able to deal with this committee in the context of the reform of the Defence Forces and the defence sector as a whole. Tomorrow, we will publish probably the most significant document relating to defence that has been published for 50 years in respect of reform and change in the Defence Forces structure, culture, legislative underpinning and a whole range of things.

I will be happy to deal as well with any individual incidents, of course, that are subject to review. I caution the Senator that judicial proceedings are also under way-----

That is my whole point to the Minister.

----- on an issue and a potential court martial and people need to be careful in that regard.

We may be at risk of double jeopardy because of what the Minister has done in the past number of days.

That is not true-----

There is no point in discussing it this evening and it could well be that we will be discussing it for some time.

-----and we have been careful to ensure that is not the case.

I have asked some questions to which I await reply.

I ask that Deputy Stanton’s questions be replied to, please, by the Secretary General and the Minister. I am also very keen to allow Deputy Gannon contribute as I am also watching the clock.

There are also my questions on the fines.

Indeed. I call Mr. Hackett.

Mr. Joe Hackett

Replying to the Senator on the donations issue, I made a judgement call that the figures of €2,000 and €1,000 were commensurate with the level of public concern that was raised. It was not a fine. I do not have the statutory authority to impose fines but it was a request to make a charitable donation as a reflection of the damage done and concern raised. In coming to that figure, I was very mindful of the range of fines that were being paid, albeit for statutory offences rather than breaches of guidance. For illustrative purposes, according to the latest figures from An Garda Síochána and the Department of Justice, 57 fines were issued in 2020, the maximum of which was for €500. Some people may think that €2,000 was too much and some may think it was too little but it was my judgement call that this figure was commensurate and that was the reason I went down that route.

On the second part of my question, is there any general precedent for fines?

Mr. Joe Hackett

Again, I restate that as Secretary General I do not have the authority to impose fines, as such. That would be a matter for law enforcement authorities. I am not aware of a precedent in this situation. The level of scrutiny in response to this has been somewhat unprecedented so I believe it was legitimate to take measures like this in response to an unusual situation.

The Senator had two questions there, one of which was how long was the breach. As we indicated in the review, from all accounts of people who were there, it lasted approximately one minute. The Senator’s first question was on the outline of the report and the review. The structure of it was focused around four pillars: the workplace arrangements; public health advice and rules in place at the time; the circumstances whereby staff were present that day, and the nature of the work that was being done and was anticipated would be done; and finally, the circumstances in which the staff gathered following the result. There were then six conclusions and I have gone into some detail on these in the review but also in the opening statement.

My apologies, Chairman, but I would like to come back in here, please. The Secretary General said that in this incident people came together for one minute. How did he ascertain that? Did he get this from a number of people independently or how did he come up with that figure?

Mr. Joe Hackett

We asked everyone who was involved in that photograph how long it took. When I say one minute, it is the breach of social distancing guidance that occurred from the time that people came together to the time that they dispersed again out of that photograph. Some had that figure at much less than one minute and some had it at slightly more. It seemed reasonable to us that if we think of our own daily lives, in how long it takes to take a picture, that was the nature of the breach and that is the figure we agreed on. There was a great deal of consensus among those interviewed that this was the time limit.

I thank Mr. Hackett.

I thank the Deputy and return now to members' questions. The next speakers are Deputy Gannon followed by Senators Joe O’Reilly and Wilson, and I am very keen then to accommodate Deputy Paul Murphy who has joined us as a visitor. I call Deputy Gannon.

I will ask some very direct questions, individually if possible, and I will be very quick. Why were only four of the officials who were present asked to make a donation?

Mr. Joe Hackett

This was for a number of reasons. In the first instance, the former Secretary General was asked to make a donation of €2,000, as outlined in the report, as he was largely responsible. The other three individuals were at management board level and were, therefore, senior managers, and I took a decision that they had broad management responsibility for the failure that happened. This is again directly related to the breach that occurred. The other staff, who are largely more junior, were in a situation where the then Secretary General asked them to come together and I did not think that it would be proportionate to ask them to make a donation.

I was going to ask how the amount of the donations were arrived at but Senator Ardagh has done that.

Did Mr. Hackett discuss this donation with the former Secretary General, Mr. Burgess, before he made the recommendation and did he mention to him that he was going to recommend €2,000, in advance of the recommendation being announced?

Mr. Joe Hackett

Yes, because working with our legal team, in terms of natural justice, when one includes findings and recommendations on individuals, that extract would be shared with them. That included the particular sanction on them. I also thought that one of the first questions we would be asked would be had they agreed to make the donation. I felt it was, therefore, better to include an answer to that question in the review itself so the answer to that question is “Yes”.

The report outlines that: "The decision to attend Iveagh House was discussed and agreed at video conferences with senior managers and as part of the advance planning arrangements." Why did the review not include details of what occurred during that advance planning prior to 17 June 2020?

Mr. Joe Hackett

There are two elements to that. Records Nos. 8, 28, 40, 37, 39, 53 and 57 were all released as part of the freedom of information requests that were annexed to the review and contain some elements of the advanced planning and some of the efforts that were made to comply with social distance guidance. All the meetings we had said that the director of the team and the deputy Secretary General at the time, on a series of videoconferences in the days leading up to it, discussed coming in, who would come in and when they would come in. That is touched upon in the review but perhaps we could have gone into it in more detail.

Why was the Covid-19 safe working group not contacted before June 17 if a team of staff was due to be in Iveagh House?

Mr. Joe Hackett

We acknowledge that should have happened, although we say it was an administrative oversight. Keep in mind that the Covid-19 safe working group had only been established on 2 June and, in fact, the first communication from it out to divisions was on 16 June, literally, the day before the event. It had been established but there was not a high level of awareness of it and, crucially, the measures that were taken and that were in place from a safe working arrangement point of view would have been ones that the Covid-19 safe working group would have recommended. We, and I certainly felt that it was more an administrative mistake than a serious error.

I am going to admit that my eyebrow did rise a little bit when Mr. Hackett said that the sparkling wine or the champagne was in the fridge for private occasions. What are the rules in respect of public servants drinking while on campus or in Iveagh House? Are there rules in advance of such activity? I would find it very strange if I walked into my office and some of my staff were sitting there drinking wine? What are the rules in that regard?

Mr. Joe Hackett

Like all Departments, there is a code and policy on the misuse of drugs and alcohol across the Civil Service and we comply with that. That does not include guidance or rules on the storage and consumption of alcohol on premises and the same applies to all Departments. This is certainly an area that we could look at but it is not there.

I would stress that there is no culture of widespread consumption of alcohol for personal use in the Department. That is just not my experience and there is quite a different culture in place in the Department. When I think of the culture that is in place in the Department of Foreign Affairs, I think about the people that we have sitting in Kyiv at the moment waiting with Russians on the border, people who face death threats in Ethiopia, or the people who helped with the consular case in Shanghai. There is all this talk about the culture in the Department-----

With the greatest of respect to Mr. Hackett, I intend to stick to the date in question. I understand the great work that is done but we would not be given the courtesy to depart from the topic. We do not doubt for a second the great work the Department does. I did not question whether there is a culture of drinking in the Department but Mr. Hackett did evoke the image of champagne sitting in a fridge for a retirement party. Given that this was a review limited to 17 June, is he aware of any other occasions during the period of lockdown when that champagne was removed from the fridge for a retirement party or for any other occasion and does he think that would be an omission from the report that will, again, raise questions?

Mr. Joe Hackett

No, I am not, in response to the specific question the Deputy raises. As is well known since it is in the public domain, there was an official event on 15 July to mark the election to the Security Council. That was held in full compliance with the Covid guidance at the time. That was an official event, however, so the answer to the Deputy's specific question is that I am not aware of any such occasions.

Did the former Secretary General, Niall Burgess, delete the tweet he put out that evening of his own accord or was he advised to do so? If so, who advised him to delete the tweet?

Mr. Joe Hackett

Is that question directed to me?

It is probably more appropriately directed to the Minister.

The honest answer to that question is that I do not know. The deletion of the tweet certainly did not arise from an instruction from me or anybody on my team. Having looked at the tweet afterwards because of the public interest in it, it looks to me that somebody raised the issue with Mr. Burgess on social media and pointed out that the people in the photograph were bunched tightly together and that he responded by accepting that they had let their guard down and that it should not have happened. I think the tweet was deleted after that. That is my understanding. Nobody was leaning on Mr. Burgess, as far as I am aware, to delete the tweet. I presume he realised that a mistake had been made, acknowledged it and took the photograph down.

It is important to try to get some perspective on this. We are looking at this after 19 months of Covid restrictions, sacrifice and the things Senator Ardagh rightly outlined such as the struggles many families have faced. I can understand why people would look at the photograph and ask how the incident happened and be angered by it. All I can say, however, is what happened insofar as my involvement that night was concerned. The incident was mentioned to me not as a major issue but as a stupid mistake. The then Secretary General acknowledged it and the agenda moved on. When the matter was raised again, 18 months later, in the media, legitimately, and there was concern about it, I had to respond to that, obviously. That is why I asked the Secretary General to undertake the report. Senator Craughwell said he did not think it was appropriate for a new Secretary General to be asked to do the report. If, however, the Senator asks the Secretary General, I think he will say he felt he had an obligation to take it on, given the fact that this had happened in the Department, that there was reputational damage associated with it and that we needed to address that collectively, as a Department, which is what we have tried to do in this report.

I call Senator Joe O'Reilly, to be followed by Senator Wilson and Deputy Paul Murphy. We have had a lot of repetition, so I ask the Senators not to ask questions the Secretary General and the Minister have already fully answered.

I welcome our guests.

Why did the work event take place in an open-plan area? I presume there was a significance to that. The question has been asked, but will the Secretary General restate that all the social distancing issues arose during a few minutes surrounding the taking of a photograph? Is that what he is suggesting?

Because the Minister is sometimes wrongly implicated in this case, will Mr. Hackett or the Minister explain to the committee the control structures in the Department, that is, the HR and supervision structures? Where does the Minister's responsibility for internal staffing matters begin and end? As for the contribution and the mistake, are there any further steps? There is reasonable public anger about this. There has been admission of an error. Is there anything further the Secretary General or the Minister thinks could be done to give people confidence that this is being taken seriously?

I have one final question. Beyond this mistake, I ask the Secretary General for an update on the major areas Ireland has been focusing on during our term on the Security Council. There is less than a year left in our term. The question of what we have been doing since is relevant in the context of a celebration.

I come back to the Secretary General and the Minister, starting with the former, on the question of the office layout and social distancing and then moving on to the other questions Senator Joe O'Reilly raised.

Mr. Joe Hackett

The open-plan office is the area where most of the UN policy team was normally based. It was also used because it is a large space. In non-Covid times it had potentially 152 office spaces, with six further offices along its side. It was decided, therefore, that that was where people should concentrate because of the space it provided specifically to comply with social distancing. As the review makes clear, the serious social distancing breach to which we referred was the one minute surrounding the taking of the photograph. The review also points out, however, that after the photograph was taken and as people dispersed, we could not rule out the possibility that there were minor breaches of the 2 m rule as people moved around, given the nature of the events involved.

As for major policy areas the Department is focused on in a UN context, does the Minister wish to comment?

I asked about the control structures and HR in the Department because there is an allegation out there that the Minister should have disciplined the personnel involved. Will the Minister or Mr. Hackett explain the Minister's authority in that regard?

Mr. Joe Hackett

As for the behaviour of staff, the discipline of staff internally, the way the Department is administered and organised under the Public Service Management Act is a matter for the Secretary General, not the Minister. That is why the review focused on the behaviour of staff of the Department and why I led on the report and its terms of reference.

In response to Senator O'Reilly's comments, while it is of course the responsibility of the Secretary General to deal with staffing issues and so on, I do not want to suggest that I do not have some responsibility in this regard. I do. This is a political issue as well as a momentary failing in the form of a breach of guidelines. That is why I felt it was important to have this report and to bring it to the committee. It is also important to recognise that it certainly would have been helpful if I had raised the matter directly with the Secretary General at the time. I did not and I allowed the agenda to move on. That is what happened. There was no issue. Nobody raised the matter either inside or outside the Department in the time following that evening. I think it would have been helpful if I had addressed the matter directly with the Secretary General at the time but I did not do so. When the matter became one of public concern, however, we responded by trying to produce a comprehensive and truthful account of what happened.

I call on Senator Wilson, to be followed by Deputy Paul Murphy.

I will be brief because almost all the questions have been asked and answered. I welcome the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and Mr. Hackett to the meeting. During a private meeting at which we discussed this matter, I expressed my belief that the investigation should have been carried out by an independent person. However, I accept Mr. Hackett's report and his findings.

I have just one question. Deputy Gannon asked a similar question but I wish to address mine directly to both Mr. Hackett and the Minister. Are they aware of any other social gatherings having taken place within the Department of Foreign Affairs during lockdown?

This was not a social gathering, and the report is quite clear on that. These were people at work in their workplace who then breached guidelines for about a minute because they posed for a photograph celebrating a big event in the Department that evening. It is important to make the distinction between a social gathering and a workplace incident. The answer to the Senator's question is that I am not aware of any social gathering that took place in the Department and that was contrary to restrictions through the Covid period.

Mr. Joe Hackett

Absolutely. Any official events that may have taken place over recent years would have been fully compliant with the Covid guidance in place at the time.

What about unofficial events?

Mr. Joe Hackett

I am not aware of any.

I will be brief. I thank the officials for coming before the committee. I read the review with interest. The essential findings are that the regulations relating to the organising of social gatherings were not breached but that social distance guidelines were breached for a minute. Will Mr. Hackett outline what precisely was the breach of the social distancing guidelines?

Mr. Joe Hackett

The guidance specifically was around the need to maintain 2 m social distancing. The serious breach that we identified was the failure to do that particularly around the time that the photograph was being taken.

Therefore if, in the photograph, the people had been drinking champagne but had been 2 m or more apart, there would have been no breach of any guidelines whatever, in Mr. Hackett's opinion?

Mr. Joe Hackett

It would have caused reputational damage and would still have been a serious mistake.

But, to repeat the question, if they had been standing 2 m apart from the point of view of Mr. Hackett's report, then there would have been no breach of any guidance or regulations?

Mr. Joe Hackett

That is hypothetical so I will not get drawn on that. They were standing within 2 m, they were drinking alcohol, there was a photograph and the photograph was tweeted. All of those things were wrong.

But just to confirm Mr. Hackett is saying that the precise breach of social distancing guidelines that took place was the fact that they were less than 2 m apart from each other.

I think that is what the Secretary General said.

Mr. Joe Hackett

No, that is fair enough. It is the nature of the serious offence that we identified and described, yes.

Okay. Let us move on. The report puts a lot of weight on the idea that this was not an organised social gathering because if it was it would have been a breach of the regulations and a criminal matter. Was it a spontaneous event?

Mr. Joe Hackett

First, it was not an event. It was people at work, doing work and in response to work they were clearly happy and pleased when the outcome occurred; the decision to convene a photograph and bunch people up together was spontaneous in my opinion, yes.

It was spontaneous. Mr. Hackett referred earlier to two people who were present. To be clear, certainly from me, there is no criticism of those people whatever. However, how did they know to be present? I think Mr. Hackett has accepted that they were not working on that day. How did they know to be present at the moment when the champagne corks popped and the picture was taken?

Mr. Joe Hackett

As I said, they had been important members of the team. One had just gone on maternity leave relatively recently. They were clearly aware of what time the result was expected to come through because it was public knowledge. They had a lot of information and expertise that they wanted to share - I think that they are to be admired for that - therefore they made a decision to come in themselves around that time.

Did they come in to do work?

Mr. Joe Hackett

They came in to be present when it was announced. According to their own testimony, they came in to offer whatever advice that they could if a second round was necessary.

The review says that the review team is satisfied that the vast majority of those present attended the workplace in order to perform essential work-related tasks.

Mr. Joe Hackett


So were they part of the vast majority or were they part of the minority.

Mr. Joe Hackett

That is why it says "the vast majority".

So they were not there to do essential work-related tasks.

Mr. Joe Hackett

That is correct.

So they were there to celebrate the victory of the UN Security Council place.

Mr. Joe Hackett

As I said earlier, to be honest, I am uncomfortable discussing two women on maternity leave coming in on -----

To be clear I am not making any criticism of them whatever but it goes to whether the event was organised or not organised.

Mr. Joe Hackett

I think it has been a difficult month for them with the carry through like this. They are far more junior than many others in that picture. My own personal view is that having them interrogated or implicitly interrogated in this way calls into question some of the fundamental principles of our maternity policy and what we are trying to achieve. I found that a difficult part of the review and I find it difficult to have this conversation because of the position that it puts them in.

Deputy Murphy was here at the start of our meeting and I am sure that he is a member of other committees of the House. I remind him of the the long-standing parliamentary practice that members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against any person outside the House, or any official by name or in such a way as to make them in any way identifiable.

The Deputy has heard what the Secretary General has said.

I would ask him to accept his bona fides on the matter.

That is no problem and to be clear, as I stated at the start, I have no criticism of the women whatever and have no criticism of bringing children into the workplace and so on. I do not have any of those criticisms whatever.

An email from the Secretary General was sent at 5.16 p.m. on 16 June saying: "following our call earlier, SG happy to watch the result down the back of the political open plan ‘in the thick of it’.”

Is it accurate to say the photograph was taken at the back of the political open plan?

Mr. Joe Hackett

That is correct.

So how can Mr. Hackett maintain that the event was spontaneous when an email referring to it was sent the day before?

Mr. Joe Hackett

My interpretation of that email is that he was indicating that when the results were coming through and in the aftermath, he intended joining staff for that part of the working day.

Mr. Hackett maintains that the event was not organised but that it was spontaneous despite the fact taht there were people there who were not there to be working - no criticism of them whatever - and the fact that an email sent the day before refers to an event taking place where it did.

Mr. Joe Hackett

I think that it was part of the working day. The outcome of the vote was work. There was a whole range of quite intense work-related activity that would have had to happen in the immediate aftermath of that vote. Therefore it was not an event. It was a work-related activity. The Secretary General made a decision that when that piece of work was taking place - that is, staff watching the results come through - he would be with them.

So they were drinking champagne while working.

Mr. Joe Hackett

That he would be there for the result of the word coming through was what the email refers to.

What type of sparkling wine was it?

Mr. Joe Hackett

Do you want me to answer that, Chair? I said earlier that there was alcohol served and that the review did not find or was not in a position to find beyond that what the nature of the alcohol was other than the fact that it was some form of sparkling wine.

Finally I have a question for the Minister. Earlier he said that he did not delete any text messages in relation to this event. An article stated that he received a text message about it on 29 December 2021 but that when a freedom of information request was submitted looking for any texts referring to this issue which would have covered that period, the FOI response came back with no texts. Does the Minister have any idea how that happened?

All I can say is that I have not deleted any texts and I have complied with the rules under FOI.

Was there a mistake by someone in the Department or -----

There were a lot of articles written by a lot of people as Deputy Murphy well knows.

The Department stated that a comprehensive search of the Minister's phone had found no messages pertaining to the incident however the Minister is saying that his phone still contains a message that does relate to it.

I have not deleted any texts. My understanding is that I have complied fully with my obligations under FOI in relation to this issue.

I take it neither the Secretary General nor the Minister wishes to add to anything that has already been said at the meeting. That being the case, I will bring the matter to a conclusion and we will draw a line under this issue.

I thank the Secretary General for coming here and for the comprehensive report which was circulated to members some time ago in preparation for this meeting. I thank the Minister for coming here and dealing with the questions in the manner in manner in which he did so.

The joint committee adjourned at 6.09 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Thursday, 10 February 2022.