Coveney has a bad habit of making small mistakes into bigger ones

Zappone affair and now celebration at Iveagh House both poorly handled, writes Pat Leahy

Most insiders agree that Simon Coveney is a capable and hard-working Minister for Foreign Affairs, but he is bad at emerging from political scrapes. Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

Most insiders agree that Simon Coveney is a capable and hard-working Minister for Foreign Affairs, but he is bad at emerging from political scrapes. Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

 

If escalating one political mistake into a full-blown controversy that dominates headlines is a misfortune, doing it twice in the space of six months begins to look like carelessness.

Simon Coveney is still smarting from the Katherine Zappone affair, a needlessly bruising controversy that raged for two months last autumn after the botched and then abandoned appointment of her as a UN “special envoy”,

Now, the Minister for Foreign Affairs finds himself mired in another row, this time relating to drinks had by staff in his department in June 2020, in breach of lockdown rules.

Nobody in Government holds Coveney responsible for the impromptu drinks held in Iveagh House after Ireland had won election to the UN Security Council in June 2020, after two years of backbreaking work.

Few of them think the incident amounted to much in the first place, or that most fair-minded people in the public at large think otherwise, even if one could be forgiven for thinking otherwise given the space it has taken up on the airwaves.

'Colleagues have a high tolerance for mistakes,' says one Government insider. 'But they have a low tolerance for not realising you’ve made a mistake.'

Inevitably, however, it was dubbed a “champagne party”, which makes it politically toxic and many in his own party and his coalition partners are privately very critical of the way he has handled the controversy.

“Colleagues have a high tolerance for mistakes,” says one Government insider, explaining that they have all made plenty of them. “But they have a low tolerance for not realising you’ve made a mistake.”

Nobody in Government believes that the drinks at the desks in Foreign Affairs on that June 18th, 18 months ago, should be a hanging offence for anyone involved, or for the Minister who stopped by to thank officials for their work.

And while some people outside Government may take a harsher view of things, it is patently inaccurate to compare the event there to the party culture of Downing Street.

A photograph of the Iveagh House 2020 celebration posted on Twitter by then secretary general of the department Niall Burgess.
A photograph of the Iveagh House 2020 celebration posted on Twitter by then secretary general of the department Niall Burgess.

Had a garda somehow been present, it is overwhelmingly likely that he or she would have told everyone to go home, rather than charged them for violating Covid rules.

Fiercely critical

But if ministers and senior officials are fiercely critical among themselves about the determination of RTÉ to follow the story and the way Sinn Féin has sought to exploit it – pointing out, not unfairly, that both of these organisations have dealt with their own violations of Covid rules without sackings or resignations – they also believe that Coveney’s handling of the affair has made it worse. “He just doesn’t have the deftness to reverse himself out of political scrapes,” says one person who has worked with him.

In particular, they are critical of his attempts to brush off the controversy, first by declining to answer questions about the “party” and then by answering them in a manner that has just brought forward more questions. Critics point particularly to an interview with RTÉ’s Bryan Dobson last week in which he played down the significance of the events and neglected to mention that he had asked the secretary-general of his department, Joe Hackett, for a report. Only after a session of uncomfortable humming and hawing by Leo Varadkar during another interview on Sunday did Coveney’s officials announce that a review would take place.

Those with longer memories recall an even more damaging interview last July that turbo-charged the Zappone controversy. In a tetchy exchange with RTÉ – Dobson again – Coveney insisted the special envoy role was not created for Zappone. Asked if he had considered anyone else, Coveney replied: “No, I didn’t.” On whether others should have been given an opportunity to express an interest, he said: “This was a judgment call by me, on the advice of my department.” Coveney also asked: “Is anybody seriously questioning Katherine Zappone’s suitability for this job?”

“A little more humility might have helped,” said one FG TD. Many of his colleagues were less understated in their criticisms.

And those who remember Coveney’s appearances at the Oireachtas Foreign Affairs Committee last year – when a disastrous round one necessitated a penitential round two – have cause to be nervous about the upcoming inquiries by that body. All of that culminated in a Dáil motion of no-confidence in Coveney – a bruising episode that left its scars. “I think he was really hurt by it all,” says a colleague. This time, more than three weeks into the current controversy, there is little confidence in Government that Coveney is getting on top of it.

Some perspective, though, is warranted. Coveney remains a highly respected figure within the party, and was widely lauded, far beyond his own party, for his handling of Brexit. He has worked tirelessly on Northern Ireland. He is one of a small handful of ministers who carries clout with the public; even opponents recognise his seriousness, work-rate and integrity. He won the popular vote among party members in the contest against Varadkar in 2017, and is its deputy leader. Along with Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe and Varadkar, he is one of the triumvirate that makes up the leadership of the party. By any standards, he is a big beast in the political jungle.

Mostly bunkum

From a family that was prominent commercially and politically in Cork – he took his Dáil seat following the untimely death of his father Hugh – Coveney’s relatively privileged background is usually used as stick to beat him. He is often portrayed as elitist, out-of-touch, a merchant prince, born to rule. Perhaps he didn’t help himself by championing State support for a bid to bring the America’s Cup yacht race to Cork last year. But the out-of-touch charge is mostly bunkum – no Irish politician can afford anything other than a relationship of constant familiarity with his or her voters. Because if that wanes, they will lose their seats, and pretty sharpish too. Irish voters expect their politicians to be available to them.

But whether it is his wealthy background, the social position of his family in Cork or an innate personality trait, he tends to self-righteousness, bordering on arrogance. He clearly does not appreciate lines of questioning that he finds irrelevant or irritating. Coveney will talk about what he wants to talk about, whatever reporters or interviewers want.

At the height of the Zappone controversy, emerging from the building on 2nd Avenue in Manhattan that houses Ireland’s United Nations’ mission, Coveney stopped to take questions from the Irish press corps.

To many of the reporters present Coveney’s attitude was: why are you asking me about this triviality, when I am doing much more important work?

He had just completed two days of high-level meetings as part of Ireland’s stint chairing the UN Security Council, culminating in a discussion on Afghanistan with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. Now, he was about to set forth to Washington DC to meet the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Democrat Nancy Pelosi, for significant talks on Brexit and the Northern Ireland protocol.

But all the reporters wanted to ask about was Zappone. To Coveney’s obvious frustration, none of the questions he was asked that evening related to his work at the UN. To many of the reporters present Coveney’s attitude was: why are you asking me about this triviality, when I am doing much more important work?

“It’s the lack of humility,” says one party source, “the ability to say, ‘Look, I got it wrong and I’m sorry.’ Instead, it’s, ‘Look, I did nothing wrong and what’s all the fuss about?’”

“He’ll talk to 20 or 30 minutes and not realise he’s lost the room,” says one colleague.

In a politician who is on the up, bulletproof self-confidence is an asset, enabling them to overcome obstacles and convincing others that their rise is inevitable. In a politician who is under pressure, a perceived lack of humility can be a dangerous liability.

Under pressure

Fine Gael is a party under pressure at the moment, and that pressure will find cracks. Its leader, Leo Varadkar, has found it hard to settle into the number two role in Government and remains under Garda investigation for leaking a confidential document. It has seen a steady 18-month decline in its poll ratings. Despite repeated denials, many party members wonder if its stabilising force and champion of the political centre, finance minister Paschal Donohoe, will depart Irish politics for some (unspecified) international role. For a long time, the assumption was that if Varadkar fell under a bus, Coveney would effortlessly assume the leadership. That is no longer so.

“Look, he’s still held in high esteem in the organisation,” says one councillor from a rural area. “But looking ahead to after Leo... there’s no doubt that he’s damaged. Simon Harris and Helen McEntee tend to be the names you’d hear now.”

(Additional reporting by Cormac McQuinn)