Coveney may be in breach of FoI Act, says Labour’s Brendan Howlin

‘You cannot erase history,’ states former Labour minister and architect of legislation

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has indicated a willingness  to attend another Oireachtas committee meeting to discuss the proposed Katherine Zappone UN  appointment. Photograph: PA

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has indicated a willingness to attend another Oireachtas committee meeting to discuss the proposed Katherine Zappone UN appointment. Photograph: PA

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Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney may have breached the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act by deleting texts relating to his official duties, according to the architect of the legislation.

Labour TD Brendan Howlin was responsible when minister for public expenditure and reform for a major reform of the Act in 2014 that widened its scope and made specific provisions to make electronic devices such as mobile phones or non-official systems such as email, if they related to the official function of the office holder, amenable under the Act.

Mr Howlin said text exchanges between Mr Coveney, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and former minister Katherine Zappone related to the public roles of the Ministers and were subject to the FoI Act. Texts were exchanged between them in July in relation to Ms Zappone’s imminent appointment as a special envoy, a move which created controversy and ended in her not taking up the post.

Mr Coveney told an Oireachtas committee looking into the appointment he deleted them, and Mr Varadkar’s department failed to release them to journalists who lodged an FoI request. However, he then published them himself on Wednesday.

Mr Howlin said the explanation by Mr Coveney that he deleted his texts because of security considerations was not sufficient.

“If he felt the device was compromised, the backlog of texts could be stored elsewhere and the device itself cleansed. You cannot erase history just like that.”

Referring to Mr Varadkar’s texts not being included as part of a response to an FoI request, Mr Howlin said the primary responsibility was on the Minister. “Officials do not know if non-departmental channels are being used by Ministers,” he said. Mr Varadkar had said he was away on holidays and was never contacted by officials about the FoI request.

“Ministers should be expected to embrace not just the letter of the law but also the spirit,” added Mr Howlin.

Downplaying controversy

Mr Howlin’s view is borne out by the Central Policy Unit of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform which gives guidance on the FoI Act. In a note issued in 2015 it stated if it related to a public function, records held by individuals “regardless of the form in which they are held” were subject to the Act.

Last night Taoiseach Micheál Martin downplayed the controversy by criticising the “melodrama” and “overdramatics” around Ms Zappone’s appointment.

Mr Coveney also disclosed his phone was used to send messages to EU foreign ministers after it was “compromised” in 2020. In a letter to the Oireachtas committee on foreign affairs Mr Coveney denied he had misled it but was willing to attend another meeting to further discuss Ms Zappone’s appointment.

A spokesman for Mr Coveney had not responded last night to a question from The Irish Times asking if he considered deleting the texts amounted to a breach of the legislation.

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