The disdain for Covid-19 rules by Irish political figures has brought about a loosening in the regulations to combat the disease as the Dublin coalition struggles to quell public anger over a rule-breaking party linked to a crony appointment.
Leading figures in the Dublin political establishment were caught attending the bash organised by Katherine Zappone, a former TD who has been a key supporter of the current Fine Gael leadership. Six days before her secretive appointment to a self-styled position as ‘UN Envoy for Freedom of Expression’, Zappone’s shindig drew scores of politicos and other insiders to the five-star Merrion Hotel in a major breach of Covid-19 guidelines.
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar attended, as did newly-elected Labour TD Ivana Bacik, senior Government adviser Donal Geoghegan, the secretary-general of the Department of Children Fergal Lynch, and other senior civil servants. A number of senior politicians have failed to confirm or deny their attendance at the event, which was described as a ‘thank-you’ party.
The inability of the current Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael government to follow their own Covid regulations has badly undermined Ireland’s public health effort to combat the killer disease. Health Executive Chief Paul Reid was forced to issue a statement urging the 26 County public to ignore the actions of their own government and disregard the “confusion and frustration” over recent events.
In an extraordinary twist, the government wheeled out the Attorney General on Thursday to retrospectively declare Zappone’s thank-you bash to be legal, despite his pronouncement creating serious contradictions in the public Covid guidance.
The self-serving manoeuvre brought about an overdue rollback of draconian Covid regulations on Friday, including increased sizes of up to 200 and live music at outdoor gatherings. A removal of restrictions on church services have also been promised for the near future.
But there was astonishment this week that Varadkar and others in the political elite had ignored the ramifications of last year’s similar ‘Golfgate’ scandal, despite it ending the political career of Ireland’s EU Commissioner Phil Hogan, and despite Varadkar himself leading the charge for Hogan’s resignation.
A gaslighting apology on Friday for attending the event failed to stop calls for his resignation. Denying he broke the law, he admitted only that he “probably let his guard down” with regards to the party which he insisted “probably” did not break industry guidelines.
“I want to express my regret at the fact I attended that event and that it’s led to this controversy,” he said, before apologising to the hospitality industry who he said were “struggling to get open again and it doesn’t help them that the guidelines are changing and are unclear”.
Other government representatives have gone into hiding, and phone calls from reporters were ignored. But those who have been unable to visit loved ones in the 26 Counties because of its authoritarian approach to Covid-19 have been venting their anger on social media. In the hospitality industry, business owners have expressed outrage over a lost summer in which they were refused permission to hold events such as the one hosted at the Merrion Hotel.
Sinn Fein spokesperson Matt Carthy said that local sporting organisations had been “crying out” to hold fundraisers which would have been of similar size and character to Ms Zappone’s event.
“The full details of the event need to come out before people make a judgement with regards to the compliance with the rules for the event,” he said.
He argued the context of Ms Zappone’s appointment as a special envoy also had to be taken into account. Varadkar and the rest of the current Fine Gael leadership were already deep in scandal after the New York-based politico found herself in a post that she herself had suggested.
Sinn Féin’s health spokesman David Cullinane said it wasn’t the first time that the coalition government and Leo Varadkar had become “bogged down” in favours for friends.
Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín noted Varadkar urged Phil Hogan to step down in the wake of ‘Golfgate’ and that he should do the same.
“The application of the law as understood by everyone clearly prohibited events such as the Zappone gig,” he said.
“For why else, up to yesterday, were a couple of dozen family members told that they could not gather in a back garden for a Communion or a Confirmation celebration. But now like Dallas and Bobby Ewing we are being told that it was all a dream.”
Desspite her decision to withdraw from the post, questions continue about Zappone’s UN role and why it was created. The man who made the appointment, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, denied it was a “makey uppy” job for a political crony, but failed to offer a plausible explanation for its creation.
Members of both the Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Political Accounts Committee of the Dublin parliament have called for hearings on the appointment.