Partygate: Patrick Kielty tells of late-nights at Sue Gray's pub

The late-night lock-ins at Sue Gray’s pub: Comedian Patrick Kielty tells of partying until 2am at boozer run by the civil servant with her country and western singer husband after she took career break in the 80s to pull pints

  • Comic Patrick Kielty tells of partying at Sue Gray’s old pub in Northern Ireland
  • Ms Gray was a landlady in the 1980s pulling pints at the Cove Bar near Newry
  • The Cove Bar has since closed and a car dealership sits on the site 

She’s the senior mandarin whose partygate report laid bare the boozy culture of lockdown parties in Downing Street.

But Sue Gray’s old pub near Newry in Northern Ireland also seemed to have its own ‘wine time Fridays’, with revellers dancing and drinking way past official closing time at the height of the Troubles.

At least, that’s according to Patrick Kielty.

During a stand-up show in Brighton, the Northern Irish comic recalled the Whitehall ethics chief’s past life as a landlady.

‘Let me tell you about Sue Gray,’ Kielty announced.

‘Sue Gray used to own the Cove Bar in Mayobridge, Co Down, 10 miles from where I grew up on the other side of the mountain. When she was working for the Northern Ireland Civil Service, she bought the bar.

‘She married a country-and-western singer from Portaferry. And this bar was meant to be officially shut most Friday nights at half eleven… and was flat to the mat with Willie Nelson at twenty to f**king two!’.

Whitehall ethics chief Sue Gray pictured in Westminster in February 2022

This Google Street View picture from 2011 shows a building at the location of the Cove Bar near Newry in Northern Ireland called The Cove Bar & Lounge. It was called the Cove Bar until 2011, and has since become a nursery. A car dealerships sits opposite the building

Patrick Kielty attends the Virgin Media British Academy Television Awards 2019 at The Royal Festival Hall in London on May 12, 2019

According to her cousin David Howgill, Ms Gray didn’t have much time for boyfriends until she met Bill Conlon, a Northern Irish part-time country and western singer, from the fishing village of Portaferry in County Down. ‘I think he was her first and only love really,’ he said.

The couple, both then 27, married in March 1985 at Newtownards register office near Belfast while Sue was taking a career break. A church wedding was out of the question as Bill, a joiner, was a divorcee.

It had been Bill’s dream to run a pub – preferably one big enough to double as a music venue. An opportunity arose when the Cove Bar near the border town of Newry needed new management.

In her former job as director-general of propriety and ethics in the Cabinet Office, Ms Gray had enormous power and long experience in Westminster scandals, and developed a fearsome reputation among ministers and officials.

It saw her described as the most powerful civil servant you have never heard of.

Epithets applied to the 64-year-old include ‘all-powerful’, ‘formidable’ and ‘enforcer’.

Former Cabinet Minister Sir Oliver Letwin once playfully posited: ‘Our great United Kingdom is actually entirely run by a lady called Sue Gray. Nothing moves in Whitehall unless Sue says so.’

Her inquiry into the so-called Plebgate affair in 2012 led to the resignation of minister Andrew Mitchell for verbally abusing police on duty in Downing Street.

And her investigation into Damian Green led to his forced resignation in 2017 after she discovered he had lied about pornography found on his Commons computer.

But her life has not been completely standard mandarin. 

According to her cousin David Howgill, Ms Gray didn’t have much time for boyfriends until she met Bill Conlon, a Northern Irish part-time country and western singer, from the fishing village of Portaferry in County Down. ‘I think he was her first and only love really,’ he said.

The couple, both then 27, married in March 1985 at Newtownards register office near Belfast while Sue was taking a career break. A church wedding was out of the question as Bill, a joiner, was a divorcee.

It had been Bill’s dream to run a pub – preferably one big enough to double as a music venue. An opportunity arose when the Cove Bar near the border town of Newry needed new management.

At this time, Newry was a key battleground between the British Army and the IRA. A month before their wedding, nine police officers were killed and 40 people injured in an IRA mortar attack on the RUC base in the town.

Ms Gray’s Newry sojourn is intriguing. According to Peter Cardwell, a former special adviser to four Cabinet Ministers: ‘Some speculated that she was a spy – something she denies.’

Last year she told the BBC: ‘I loved it, loved it at the time, I’d never do it again.’

In one extraordinary moment, Ms Gray even faced down an armed IRA gang who tried to hijack her car.

In her former job as director-general of propriety and ethics in the Cabinet Office, Ms Gray had enormous power and long experience in Westminster scandals, and developed a fearsome reputation among ministers and officials

Boris Johnson speaking during a press conference in the Downing Street briefing room in central London on May 25, 2022

Why DID Sue Gray become a landlady in Troubles hotspot during the 1980s? 

Questions remain about why Sue Gray decided to become a landlady in a Troubles hotspot during the 1980s. 

At this time, Newry was a key battleground between the British Army and the IRA. A month before their wedding, nine police officers were killed and 40 people injured in an IRA mortar attack on the RUC base in the town. 

According to Peter Cardwell, a former special adviser to four Cabinet Ministers: ‘Some speculated that she was a spy – something she denies.’

Last year she told the BBC: ‘I loved it, loved it at the time, I’d never do it again.’

In one extraordinary moment, Ms Gray even faced down an armed IRA gang who tried to hijack her car.

She was confronted by Republican paramilitaries while driving alone at night along a country road, according to a friend.

‘She said that one night she had a very heavy cold and one of her staff wanted to get off early and she closed the bar down,’ the friend said.

‘She drove the person home and was returning from South Armagh. She came across a light in the middle of the road and was ordered to stop.

‘She thought initially it was the Army and didn’t realise the guy was a paramilitary. He said to her, “We want the car, get out.” And she just bluntly refused and said, “No.” Taken aback, he said, “What?” And then he said to her, “Oh, you’re f**king English as well?” Just as the situation looked like it was set to escalate, a voice came out of the darkness and said, “That’s Sue Gray from The Cove, let her go on.”

‘Two or three nights later, she was working in The Cove and a well-dressed man was at the bottom of the bar talking with people, before nodding at her and saying, “Sue, did you get home alright the other night?”‘.

The Cove Bar has long since closed and a car dealership operates on the site.

In 1987, the couple returned to London where their two sons, Liam and Ciaran, were born.

Sue resumed her Civil Service career, working across Whitehall in transport, health and work and pensions, before joining the Cabinet Office in the late 1990s.

Relatives said Liam and Ciaran, now in their 30s, inherited their parents’ sense of social justice.

Her parents were poor but hard-working Irish immigrants to Britain – her father, Leo, a furniture salesman, and her mother, Anastasia, a long-serving barmaid – who settled in Tottenham, North London, in the early 1950s. Ms Gray was born in 1957, followed by her brother Kevin three years later, and went to a Catholic school in North London.

In 1987, the couple returned to London where their two sons, Liam and Ciaran, were born.

Ms Gray resumed her Civil Service career, working across Whitehall in transport, health and work and pensions, before joining the Cabinet Office in the late 1990s.

In January she was drafted in from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities after Cabinet Secretary Simon Case quit his role leading the inquiry.

He was forced to step down after it emerged a December 2020 quiz was held in his own department that he was aware of and spoke at.

From 2018 to 2021 she served as the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Finance at the Northern Ireland Executive.

She returned to London to head up work on the Union in 2021. But she admitted last year she wuld not have come back to London if she had won the top Civil Service post in Northern Ireland.

Ms Gray applied to run the service after the retirement of previous boss David Sterling, but the power sharing executive overlooked her and two other candidates, leaving the post unfilled.

She told the BBC at the time: ‘Why didn’t I get the job? I’m not sure I’ll ever quite know but I suspect, you know, I suspect people may have thought that I perhaps was too much of a challenger, or a disrupter.

‘I am both. Perhaps I would bring about… too much change.’

DAN WOOTTON: Sue Gray delivered a damp squib Partygate investigation lacking anything close to a smoking gun. Despite wall-to-wall BBC hysteria, the country and Boris now deserve the chance to move on 

Six months of wall-to-wall media hysteria.

Constant opposition calls – even from lockdown beer swilling and curry munching Slippery Starmer – to overturn Boris Johnson’s landslide 2019 election mandate.

Even claims from the apparently impartial ITV News political editor Robert Peston that the UK is heading towards an ‘elected dictatorship’ if the PM isn’t forced from office immediately and presumably replaced with a more ‘acceptable’ lockdown loving remoaner.

The Sue Gray report into what’s become known as ‘Partygate’ must have been pretty goddamn sensational to justify such ongoing hysteria from our MSM, right?

Especially at a time of a European war, once-in-a-generation pandemic recovery and unparalleled cost-of-living crisis…

Hardly!

She’s just delivered a damp squib, lacking anything close to a smoking gun that would encourage disloyal Tory MPs to depose BoJo.

A group of pictures released by Sue Gray show the PM’s birthday party in June 2020 – over which he was fined along with Rishi Sunak and his wife Carrie

Sue Gray’s long-awaited reported was finally published in full today after several months of waiting

For me, this entire farce is about perspective.

I was as effing livid as anyone last December when the initial reports emerged of officials at Number 10 Downing Street quaffing champagne while we were told to cower in our homes.

But I wasn’t surprised.

The lockdown laws were the most unprecedented and frankly disgusting theft of our civil liberties and freedom in modern history.

They were inhumane and should have been unconscionable anywhere outside of communist China and North Korea.

None of our so-called leaders – be it Boris or Starmer or Sturgeon – followed them.

None of us should have followed them either.

But somehow today in the frenzied big screen analysis on Sly News of the exact positioning of the orange juice, apples, M&S sandwiches and, yes, empty alcohol bottles at a miserable looking Number 10 ‘gathering’, that point has been missed.

Now I’ve read all 49 pages of the report.

It paints an unsurprising picture of out of touch government officials with no idea of the hardships they had inflicted on ordinary folk.

But it’s lacking in anything like the picture of Ibiza-style parties the MSM have painted.

For example, The Guardian’s so-called bombshell photo showing groups in the Downing Street garden on May 15 2020 was, in fact, a series of legitimate outdoor meetings, something encouraged at the time. The PM, who was there from 6pm to 7.20pm, had brought down cheese and wine from his home, which uniquely doubles as his workplace.

The garden party on May 20 2020, when we were only legally allowed to meet with one person outdoors, was an inexcusable oversight. But the event was clearly not organised with malicious intent – the idea was to celebrate Number 10 staff, who had been working around the clock, outdoors in a ‘socially distanced’ manner, given the good weather.

Pictured: Dan Wootton

Like at all the other work events, the PM was there only briefly, in this case between 6pm and 6.30pm, to thank the up to 40 staff who had gathered in the garden.

But the infamous ‘bring your own booze’ note by the PM’s Principal Private Secretary Martin Reynolds, who seemed to be party organiser in chief, rightly sealed his fate – he was part of a clear out of the management at Number 10.

As I read through the various WhatsApp messages and emails, it does indicate the staff at Number 10 had no idea of the sacrifices so many of us were making at that point by locking ourselves indoors on our own.

But, aside from one or two junior staffers who couldn’t handle their booze, the ‘parties’ were largely leaving drinks for departing colleagues or Christmas Zoom quizzes, where the staff who weren’t working from home took part in person.

At the leaving do for his departing Director of Communications Lee Cain on November 13 2020, for example, Boris was in attendance briefly at 7.17pm, before joining his wife and five special advisers upstairs in the Downing Street flat for the so-called Abba-themed Winner Takes It All meeting, following the exit of Dominic Cummings.

At another leaving do on November 27, the PM gave a short speech between meetings at 6.19pm and 6.45pm. The departing staff member had left the building herself by 6.58pm.

At the Zoom Quiz on December 11 2020, where in person staff were ordered to follow social distancing rules, the Prime Minister joined at 7.50pm to read out the questions for one of the rounds, staying for a grand total of 12 minutes before returning to work in his office.

Gray’s report made obvious to me the need for human contact while at work. In normal times, all the gatherings would have been completely understandable and posed no risk to anyone’s health, given these folk had been working together all day anyway. It’s a right that should have been extended to the rest of the country.

The most damning line from Gray actually related to the treatment of Downing Street cleaners and security guards.

Deploying a ‘masochism strategy’, the Prime Minister will ‘take responsibility’ for lockdown rule-breaking in Downing Street, which is set to be savaged in the much-anticipated report (Johnson is pictured toasting during a Downing St event in November 2020)

She wrote: ‘I was made aware of multiple examples of a lack of respect and poor treatment of security and cleaning staff. This was unacceptable.’

Shame on those people, who should take a long hard look at themselves.

But what really matters in the report is the ‘gathering’ in the Cabinet room on June 19 2020, the only incident for which Boris (and his Chancellor Rishi Sunak) have received a fixed penalty notice from the Met police.

The published photos make clear it was not a party – there’s no birthday cake in sight.

In fact, all I could see was a bunch of crusty M&S sandwiches and sad looking fruit, and an equally uncomfortable looking Chancellor, who no doubt just wanted to get on with his next meeting.

Critically, Gray confirms Boris and Rishi were ‘not aware of this event in advance’ and it did not form part of the day’s official diary.

She explains: ‘(Boris) returned from an external visit to No 10 Downing Street at approximately 2.20pm and was taken into the Cabinet Room which had been set up with sandwiches, snacks, soft drinks and cans of beer.’

Gray reports the gathering lasted for just 20 minutes, with the PM’s wife Carrie Johnson in attendance.

Rishi was only there ‘briefly’ because he ‘arrived early’ for the next meeting.

I’m sorry, if anyone is prepared to argue that a 20-minute presentation of some crappy sandwiches between meetings is genuinely reason to throw the country into chaos at a time of economic crisis then they’re nothing more than a partisan shill.

When this scandal emerged, I was clear that to regain my faith Boris had to free Britain fully from the Covid tyranny that has haunted us for much of the last two years.

So far, he has delivered on that front, with England the freest country in the western world.

I am literally exhausted with talking about these low-level rule breaking gatherings involving a few civil servants, many of whom have already fallen on their sword.

Our country deserves better than a campaigning mainstream media, led by the publicly funded BBC, who will stop at nothing to remove the Prime Minister from office.

Of course, there should be scrutiny. But nobody can tell me the official scrutiny of these events has been anything other than exhaustive.

There was no smoking gun in the Met police investigation, nor in Gray’s fully published report today.

Partygate was wrong, but it’s also over.

The country and Boris deserve the chance to move on.

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