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.