Striking a humble and apologetic tone, Simon Coveney came through a grilling at the Oireachtas foreign affairs committee on Tuesday morning, insisting that Katherine Zappone had misunderstood a conversation with him earlier this year as a job offer.
Opposition parties are likely to continue to press Coveney and his Government colleagues on the controversy, but the feeling in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil on Tuesday night was that the Minister for Foreign Affairs had survived the morning encounter without inflicting further damage on himself or the Coalition.
But it was not a comfortable encounter for him, as he doggedly stuck to his version of events in the face of obvious disbelief from many of the committee members. He admitted the affair had been “a political fiasco”. He was right about that.
Despite texts from Zappone thanking him and asking about the job’s terms and conditions, Coveney insisted this was a misunderstanding on her part. He conceded, however, that he did not correct Zappone’s misunderstanding, despite repeated communications from her, and also contacts with his officials.
By Coveney's account, he discussed the possibility late last February of a role for Zappone with his department's secretary general Niall Burgess who was "positive about that", as Coveney described it on a number of occasions. Then, in a further conversation, Burgess observed that the US was appointing a special envoy for LGBTI rights and that the Irish Government could look at that area. It was after this that Coveney spoke to Zappone – the conversation from which, by the Minister's account, she formed the mistaken impression that she was being offered a job.
Coveney’s account was not disproved or destroyed by the committee’s hearing. But nor did it seem more plausible.
There are two possible explanations of the process by which Zappone was appointed to the role by Coveney.
In one, Coveney promised her a job, his department developed the concept of the job, and she was duly appointed.
In the other, as per Coveney’s explanations, he didn’t promise her a job, but rather indicated that a job was possible if the idea could be successfully developed by his officials. While that process was going on, she behaved – with increasing impatience, it seems – as if she had been promised a job, and nobody corrected that mistaken impression. And when the concept was finally brought to fruition – with her input – she was indeed judged to be suitable for the job. So she was appointed.
Neither version reflects especially well on anyone. But perhaps, in the final analysis, there is not all that much difference between these two versions. They both involve a government job for an old colleague, one way or the other.
Undisprovable vs credible
On the other questions he faced, Coveney offered little more by way of explanation. But nor, in fairness, was his account materially undermined by the questioning. He insisted that Zappone did not lobby for the job, despite all appearances to the contrary. “I didn’t see it as lobbying,” Coveney said. That is, of its nature, an undisprovable statement. Which doesn’t mean it is a credible one. But it does mean he can stick to it, and he did.
Coveney also stuck to his line that security concerns led to him deleting texts from his phone, and said that the texts with his party leader, Leo Varadkar, were deleted before a Freedom of Information request for them came in. He doesn’t, he said, delete texts relating to Government business from his phone, though he did delete the texts with Varadkar, which related to the appointment of Zappone.
Nobody asked why if there are security concerns about retaining texts, why Government business texts wouldn’t be of an even higher concern.
Coveney did reveal he had a conversation with Zappone as recently as last Sunday, informing her that her text messages were going to be released on Monday.
It wasn’t, he said, a long conversation. Presumably, she understood what he had to say on this occasion.