Coveney defends decision to appoint Zappone as special envoy

Minister says not informing Taoiseach of planned appointment was ‘genuine mistake’

A file image from 2016 showing the then minister for housing Simon Coveney and then minister for children and youth affairs Katherine Zappone. Photograph: Collins

A file image from 2016 showing the then minister for housing Simon Coveney and then minister for children and youth affairs Katherine Zappone. Photograph: Collins

 

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has defended his decision to appoint former minister Katherine Zappone as a Government special envoy but said it was a “genuine mistake” not to alert the Taoiseach at an earlier stage.

After days of controversy over the appointment of Ms Zappone as special envoy for freedom of expression, Mr Coveney appeared on RTÉ’s News at One on Friday where he denied that the role was created for her.

A number of sources in both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have said that Mr Coveney’s interview has not been well received by Government TDs. Mr Coveney said he did not consider anyone else for the job, but also insisted she was “very suitable” for the position, which involves highlighting issues she has campaigned on “all her life”.

He also said there was a “genuine mistake” ahead of bringing the appointment to Cabinet in terms of failing to alert the Taoiseach of it beforehand.

A political row has arisen over the appointment, which did not involve an open competition but was part of what Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said was a pilot approach to appointments to such roles.

Opposition politicians have claimed the appointment amounts to “cronyism” as Ms Zappone was an Independent minister in the previous Fine Gael-led minority government.

While the Government has dismissed this claim, Mr Martin has said there was an “oversight” in how he was not informed of the plan for the appointment prior to Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting.

Questions also arose about the circumstances of the appointment after Tánaiste Leo Varadkar revealed there had been an approach by Ms Zappone to Mr Coveney. Mr Coveney said Ms Zappone moved to New York last year and contacted him to say she would be interested in supporting the Government in its work with the UN security council.

Mr Coveney said she had been “very actively involved” in the State’s bid to win its security council seat while she was a minister. He said it was “many months” later that the decision was made to do what other countries are doing and appoint a special envoy, after Government officials developed a concept paper for the job which was to involve promoting LGBTQ rights and freedom of expression.

He insisted the role was not created for Ms Zappone and it was only after the creation of the job was decided upon that he asked her if she would be willing to do it. Mr Coveney said this is “perfectly normal in terms of how special envoys are appointed”.

Asked if he had considered anyone else, Mr Coveney replied: “No I didn’t.”

On the question of whether others should have been given an opportunity to express an interest in the role, he said: “This was a judgment call by me, on the advice of my department. We thought that we could usefully use a special envoy in this area, and we had somebody who was there.”

He added: “Is anybody seriously questioning Katherine Zappone’s suitability for this job?” Mr Coveney said in all the criticism he has heard no one has questioned if she would be a suitable advocate for the issues she is to raise in the special envoy role.

Mr Coveney said other Fine Gael Ministers were told of the appointment in their regular meeting 20 minutes before the Cabinet meeting. He said he later called the Taoiseach and said he was sorry something had gone to Cabinet that he wasn’t aware of, and he said Mr Martin “accepted that of course”.

‘Makey-up job’

He said some people had suggested it was a “makey-up job to do a favour for Katherine Zappone. It was nothing of the sort.”

Mr Coveney said Ms Zappone was still taking the job but was “quite taken aback” by the political response.

“I think that’s very regrettable because she’s someone who essentially has put herself forward after I asked her to,” Mr Coveney said.

Earlier, People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy claimed Ms Zappone should “do the right thing” and not take up the special envoy job.

He reiterated the claim made by some in the Opposition that Ms Zappone’s special envoy appointment “does smack of cronyism”.

Mr Varadkar has described such claims as “nonsense”.

Over the last day critics of the appointment have been sharing a tweet by Ms Zappone from 2015 where she said the practice of appointments to State boards “made with a nod or wink has no place in open modern democracy”.

The tweets were posted by Ms Zappone on the back of a Seanad speech where she also spoke of the need for “transparency” on State boards.

Referring to her 2015 tweet, Mr Murphy claimed: “It [the appointment] is precisely what she was giving out about at the time and suggesting that everything needs to be done in a public and transparent manner.”

He said the Government should withdraw the appointment and have an open competition for the role if they feel the need for the position to be put in place.

Mr Murphy added: “If the Government doesn’t do the right thing, then I would appeal to Katherine Zappone to do the right thing and follow through on the words that she would have previously made about the need for things to be transparent and to withdraw herself from this job.”

The Irish Times contacted Ms Zappone for comment but she did not immediately respond.