Coveney denies he offered Zappone job months before Government approval

Oireachtas committee questions Minister over UN special envoy controversy

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has outlined the process around the appointment of Katherine Zappone as a special envoy, insisting that he never made her a firm offer last March. Video: Oireachtas TV

 

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has strongly denied he offered former minister Katherine Zappone a role as a special envoy to the United Nations as early as last March.

At an appearance before the Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs on Tuesday, Mr Coveney also rejected claims that Ms Zappone lobbied for the position or that he breached Freedom of Information legislation by deleting texts between himself and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar.

However, Mr Coveney apologised for “sloppiness”, and for making mistakes in the past few weeks, when explaining the circumstances in which Ms Zappone was offered the role of special envoy for LBGTI rights and freedom of expressions.

Mr Coveney made his second appearance before the committee within a week after inconsistencies emerged in the account he gave last Tuesday of the process leading up to her appointment on July 27th.

In sometimes testy exchanges, members of the committee argued that records released by the Department of Foreign Affairs on Monday pointed to Ms Zappone being offered a role as early as last March, and also strongly indicated that she had lobbied for the role.

Mr Coveney was accused of misleading the committee the previous week, of offering Ms Zappone a role, and of breaching legislation by deleting his texts.

However, the Minister insisted Ms Zappone never asked him for a job at any stage, and denied he made her a firm offer last March, about four months before the official offer was made to her.

A text from Ms Zappone sent on March 4th thanked Mr Coveney enthusiastically in relation to a special envoy role. However, Mr Coveney denied strongly that it was anything that amounted to an offer.

He said the department at that stage was interested in exploring the concept of the role. He said he informed her that that was the case in a phone call on March 3rd.

“(That March 3rd call) triggered a text to me the following day enthusiastically thanking me.

“It was not a job offer at that stage. As I made clear the concept had to be developed and that has been made clear from the documentation that has been released,” he said.

“I should have been clearer with Katherine Zappone on the extent of the work needed before a formal role would be offered to her.

“I did not speak again to her until July 19th despite the fact she was looking for updates.”

Mr Coveney apologised to the committee for “creating the circumstances of a second hearing in a week.

“It was due to the sloppiness of some of my answers to some of your legitimate questions last week.”

Mr Coveney said he had made mistakes in recent weeks in terms of convincingly explaining how the job came about.

“It has led to political embarrassment for the government.”

Sinn Féin spokesman on foreign affairs John Brady accused Mr Coveney of attempting to “deliberately mislead the committee”.

Mr Brady claimed Ms Zappone had lobbied ministers and Geraldine Byrne Nason, Ireland’s ambassador to the United Nations, looking for the role.

Scramble

He portrayed the events of the past week as as “a scramble for cover by you and other ministers, deleting messages and making misleading statements like you did last week”.

Mr Brady said Mr Coveney and Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe knew “exactly wheat was going on” at least four months before. He said Tánaiste Leo Varadkar was aware at least 11 days before the Government decision on July 27th.

Mr Brady asked Mr Coveney about his contacts with Mr Donohoe.

The Minister replied that he had an informal conversation with Mr Donohoe in late January or early February. The Minister for Finance had told him Ms Zappone might get in contact with him “in view of taking advice about getting work in the United Nations”.

In the event, he said, she texted him in early February asking about the possibility of a role with US Aid (a US Government organisation) and the possibility of an introduction to Samantha Power, the former US ambassador to the UN.

Mr Coveney denied any inference that he instructed his Department to create a role for Ms Zappone.

“The idea of Katherine Zappone playing a role for Ireland came about from a short conversation I had with the secretary general of the Department of Foreign Affairs Niall Burgess (on February 24th) when I asked if she would be of use. I had not spoken to her at that stage. The secretary general responded positively.

“I told her of the conversation in a phone call on February 26th and agreed to come back when (Mr Burgess) had any update. (He) came back a few days later to say US President Joe Biden would be appointing a special envoy (for LGBTI issues) and was interested in the department exploring the benefits of such a role.

“In that context I raised the issue of a special envoy with Katherine Zappone and asked if she would be interested.”

This conversation took place by phone on March 3rd, he said.

That triggered the text the following day (March 4th) from Ms Zappone enthusiastically thanking him, which he again insisted was not a job offer. He also denied that her communications with him after that via WhatsApp texts was lobbying.

“I can understand why the public looking at this political fiasco as it has unfolded would interpret this as being lobbying,” he told Mr Cowen.

“I got this initial contact. I regarded myself as trying to develop something that could be developed as a concept.The department developed that.

“Katherine Zappone was hugely enthusiastic and was clearly looking for regular updates on how it would materialise and where it was going.

“The facts show that the account I have given today is actually what happened,” he argued.

Mr Cowen argued that if Ms Zappone had not lobbied initially, she had lobbied subsequently with frequent interventions.

Gary Gannon of the Social Democrats said there were two clear instances where Mr Coveney had failed to dissuade Ms Zappone from her belief she had been offered a role.

Texts

The first was his failure to tell her when she texted on March 4th thanking him for the offer. The second was when she texted him on May 3rd saying Mr Coveney had mentioned June as a start date for her special envoy role.

How could she have believed a start date of June 3rd when no offer had been made, asked Mr Gannon.

Mr Coveney said “with the benefit of hindsight” it would have been helpful for him to have clarified that with her.

He said the June date had come about from their conversation in February when she informed him that she had commitments with another UN agency until the middle of June.

Mr Gannon asked Mr Coveney if he should reflect on his view that Ms Zappone had not lobbied for the job.

“That is my view. I never felt pressure. If I had I would have been responding back to her,” replied Mr Coveney.

Mr Gannon said her request to get an introduction to former US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, also appeared to be lobbying.

“Why does that not appear in the lobbying register? There was an obligation on both you and Paschal Donohoe to register.”

Mr Coveney replied he did not accept that interpretation of events. “Paschal Donohoe and Katherine Zappone are friends. They spoke last year. She asked for advice. He suggested that she contact me.”

Mr Gannon intervened. “So that’s not lobbying? Friends of Ministers don’t come under the same category (as others)?”

Mr Gannon asked Mr Coveney when he deleted the text exchanges with the Tánaiste, which occurred between July 16-19. Mr Coveney said he deleted them shortly after the conversation but before any Freedom of Information request was made.

“There is a security element to that. It is an issue for me. As a matter of course, when I don’t think it necessary to have text messages on my phone because something is concluded and moving on, I delete them,” he said.

“I did not delete texts in an effort to hide anything,” he insisted.

Mr Coveney also did not deny he was still deleting texts when asked by Senator Diarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fáil) citing security considerations. He also contended deleting the text exchange with Mr Varadkar did not breach Freedom of Information legislation as he did not consider it Government business.

“Anything to do with Government business is the property of the Department. I do not and will not clear messages that are related to the Government,” he said.

James Lawless (Fianna Fáil) asked did Mr Coveney use his private email account for public business? Mr Coveney said he did not.

Cooling-off period

Mr Cowen and Senator Gerard Craughwell (Independent) also asked about the cooling-off period of 12 months for former ministers and why Ms Zappone was not subject to it. There is a stipulation that they do no work of any body which had dealings with their Department.

“The cooling off period (applies) when there is a conflict of interest. I did not see a conflict of interest,” replied Mr Coveney.

Mr Coveney also told the committee that he first mentioned the special envoy role to Ms Zappone in early March and she had not mentioned it to him at all before that. He said she did not look for updates from him until after he mentioned the role to her.

Asked by Sorca Clarke (Sinn Féin) as to why he deleted text exchanges with Leo Varadkar but not with Ms Zappone, he said that he deleted texts when the matter had come to a conclusion. The exchange with Mr Varadkar was over, he argued, while that with Ms Zappone was ongoing.

“As far as I was concerned, the conversation with Katherine Zappone on this role went on for quite a long while,” he said.

Mr Coveney also disclosed he rang Ms Zappone on Sunday to tell her that the department would be releasing more than 100 records on Monday, including the WhatsApp conversation between the two.

He said it was a short call. “It was a courtesy call to say the Department was releasing an extensive file on Monday.

“She asked what was being released. I explained what was being released. I went through the text messages she sent to me. That was to give her the courtesy of letting her know that, he said.”

Questioned by Senator Catherine Ardagh (Fianna Fáil), Mr Coveney again denied that the texts from Ms Zappone seeking updates on the role amounted to lobbying.

“I saw the texts from Katherine Zappone as an enthusiastic person who wanted to get an update. I did not see it as lobbying.

“She sent me a number of texts over a number of months because she was enthusiastic about the role.

“I can see because of the narrative that has developed since that many people would see it as lobbying but I would not have seen it as that.”

Ms Ardagh said it “beggars beggars belief she would get the message so wrong”.

She said that ordinary people would view it as lobbying. “Imagine going for a job interview and being able to write the job yourself and define the role?” she asked.

Pressed by Ms Ardagh on why he deleted the text exchange with Mr Varadkar, Mr Coveney denied strenuously that it was done to hide anything.

He said if he were trying to hide the exchange why would he have raised it himself at the committee, without prompting.

“I volunteered that information to be helpful. It was helpful that Leo Varadkar (subsequently) published the texts.”