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Merrion Hotel controversy: Varadkar apologises for attending hotel event but says there was no breach of public health guidelines

DUBLIN: Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has apologised to the nation for his involvement in a controversy over an event hosted by former minister Katherine Zappone at Dublin’s Merrion Hotel.

About 50 people, including Mr Varadkar, Labour TD Ivana Basik and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan’s joint chief of staff, Dónall Geoghegan, attended the outdoor function. The issue escalated into a political controversy after allegations surfaced that it was illegal.

All of the opposition parties, including Sinn Féin, as well as the leaders of the ruling Fianna Fáil, levelled harsh criticism at Mr Varadkar and other members who attended the party. The Tánaiste was accused of misinterpreting the guidelines in order to legalise the hotel event and even using the name of the Attorney General to defend himself. He then apologised and clarified his stance.

Mr Varadkar, however, said the controversy was only a political allegation by Sinn Féin. He also said that the revised guidelines have been approved by the Cabinet and do not require the approval of Sinn Féin.

The event was not in breach of the Government regulations: Varadkar

The Tánaiste reiterated that there was no violation of public health guidelines. He also denied that the guidelines had been modified to fit his viewpoint since the issue arose. However, Mr Varadkar said he regretted attending the controversial event.

“I want to express my regret at the fact I attended that event and that it’s led to this controversy. And I want to say sorry to the hospitality industry in particular, they’re struggling to get open again and it doesn’t help them that the guidelines are changing and are unclear at time, and to any members of the public who are confused about what the rules are,” he said.

“But I do want to say very clearly that the event was not in breach of the Government regulations in place at the time which allow for outdoor gatherings of over 200, and probably wasn’t in breach of the Fáilte Ireland guidelines either,” he added.

He also said that the guidelines were unclear and had changed 35 times since the pandemic began, creating confusion among the public and the hospitality sector.

Mr Varadkar said there are four levels of rules: the Government regulations, Government advice, National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) advice and sectoral guidelines. He also noted that outdoor outdoor events such as sports events and concerts have been going on for several weeks.

“For my part, I probably let my guard down. I did do a treble check. I checked the regulations, the ones I sign off on, the ones I am familiar with, I checked with the organiser of the event and the manager of the hotel as I arrived,” he said.

Ms Zappone rejects the position as UN Special Envoy

In light of the ongoing criticism, Ms Zappone decided to step back from her role as UN special envoy.

“While I am honoured to have been appointed by the Government to be the Special Envoy on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, it is clear that criticism of the appointment process has impacted the legitimacy of the role itself,” she said in an emailed statement.

“It is my conviction that a special envoy role can only be of real value to Ireland and to the global community if the appointment is acceptable to all parties. For this reason, I have decided not to accept this appointment, and I have communicated my decision to the Minister for Foreign Affairs,” Ms Zappone added.  

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