Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said that his phone was used to send messages to EU foreign ministers after it was “compromised” in 2020.
In a letter to the Oireachtas Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Charlie Flanagan, Mr Coveney says that the hacking of his phone was investigated by gardaí.
“It is already publicly known that my phone was compromised in 2020,” he says. “What is not known is that some of my foreign minister colleagues across Europe were contacted using my phone’s identity as a front during that hacking incident. I believe the matter was dealt with swiftly and thoroughly by my department and the gardaí from whom I take ongoing advice.
“As a result of this incident and others, I work on the basis that very few telecommunications are completely secure,” Mr Coveney said.
There is mounting pressure on Mr Coveney to clear up inconsistencies in his account of events surrounding the appointment of Katherine Zappone as a special envoy after senior Fianna Fáil TD Barry Cowen said he was sacked from ministerial office in similar circumstances.
About 50 people attended an event at the Merrion Hotel in July, shortly before Ms Zappone was appointed by Cabinet as special envoy for freedom of expression. She has since stepped away from the role in light of public outcry over the process around that appointment.
In his letter to Mr Flanagan, Mr Coveney also strongly rejects suggestions that he may have misled the committee in his evidence on Tuesday.
He also says that text messages between Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Ms Zappone show that Ms Zappone had told Mr Varadkar about his impending appointment prior to contacts between Mr Coveney and Mr Varadkar.
“What I did not know in the committee was why the Tánaiste had initiated this text conversation,” Mr Coveney said.
“However his other text messages with Katherine Zappone, also released by his office, show that she had told him about the upcoming role in the Department of Foreign Affairs, which at that stage was near finalisation and close to being brought to cabinet.
“My recollection was, and still is, that the Tánaiste’s reason for texting me was that he was meeting Katherine Zappone and wanted to know what was going on. This is completely consistent with something I said twice in response to questions from members.”
“However,” he said, “I did not have the text messages word for word in the committee and was relying on memory. I was completely honest with members of the committee on this point in the session”.
The letter from Mr Coveney does not address the question raised by some opposition TDs - why he told the committee that Ms Zappone had not lobbied for the position, when the texts between Ms Zappone and Mr Varadkar show that she was questioning the Tánaiste about the progress of her appointment.
Mr Coveney also stresses his willingness to appear before the committee for further questioning.
Earlier, Mr Varadkar said Mr Coveney was willing to make himself available to clarify outstanding questions around the appointment of Katherine Zappone as a special envoy.
Speaking in Newry, Co Down, on Thursday morning, Mr Varadkar was asked what Mr Coveney should do now. “My understanding is that he spent two hours at committee, was willing to go before committee and be held to account and answer questions, and is willing to offer further clarification if that is necessary,” Mr Varadkar said.
The Tánaiste said he saw no reason why he or Mr Coveney should consider their Ministerial positions in light of the continuing fallout over the controversy.
“I don’t think it is causing a distraction for Government bearing in mind that I am here in Northern Ireland doing my work as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment.
“Mr Coveney is in Slovenia doing his work as Minister for Foreign Affairs, and this afternoon the Government will publish its Housing for All plan on housing,” he said.
Asked had the controversy not “overshadowed” such Governmental business, Mr Varadkar said: “I don’t think it’s been overshadowed. It’s certainly a shadow but I don’t think it is overshadowing what is a really an important day for Government, for the country.
“Bear in mind, the real big news stories of this week are the Government’s Covid plan that we published yesterday, and the Government’s Housing for All plan which we are going to publish today.”
Mr Varadkar said he had published all the records that he had in relation to the attempted appointment of Ms Zappone as special envoy that he believed would “verify my account” of how the appointment was handled or, as he acknowledged, “mishandled”.
Mr Varadkar, who was completing a two-day visit to the North where he met political and business leaders, said he had only been in contact with Mr Coveney on one occasion about the matter.
He also did not accept the accusation he had “blindsided” Taoiseach Micheál Martin in not informing him in advance about the planned appointment of Ms Zappone. The same applied to Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, he said.
“What should have happened is that either he [Mr Coveney] or I should have flagged this appointment to Minister Ryan, and to the Taoiseach, because it was potentially politically sensitive,” he told reporters at the InterTradeIreland office that he visited on Thursday morning.
“In the past special envoys were appointed, without even going to Cabinet, but this one was politically sensitive, and it was a mistake on my part, and his part, that one of us didn’t flag this to the to the Green Party and the Taoiseach. And I acknowledged that mistake weeks ago, and apologised for it,” he added.
Mr Varadkar also rejected the claim by Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald that the row over the appointment was an example of Fine Gael “cronyism”.
“Anybody who knows about Northern Ireland will be able to identify plenty of examples of cronyism by Sinn Féin,” he said.
“Leaving the party politics aside what happened here is that this appointment was mishandled and both Mr Coveney and I have acknowledged that,” he added.
Earlier, Mr Varadkar apologised in a statement for a failure to release texts between Ms Zappone and himself discussing the Merrion Hotel gathering and her appointment as special envoy, in response to initial Freedom of Information (FoI) act requests from journalists.
Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil’s Mr Cowen said the Taoiseach needs to address the issue regarding the “content” of the texts.
The Laois-Offaly TD was sacked by Mr Martin during the summer of 2020 after a controversy over a four-year-old drink-driving ban.
“I was told that this issue was dominating the public domain and getting in the way of government business. I would argue that this is getting in the way of difficult government business too,” Mr Cowen told RTÉ on Thursday.
Asked if either Mr Coveney or Mr Varadkar should resign, he said: “If they feels so, that’s their decision. If they don’t feel so, the Taoiseach has a decision to make and that’s his business.”
Requests for records of any correspondence, including texts, between Mr Varadkar and Ms Zappone about the controversial hotel gathering, were made by The Irish Times to the Tánaiste’s department under the FoI act in August.
In a response on August 21st, the Department of Enterprise refused the request, stating: “the record concerned does not exist or cannot be found after all reasonable steps to ascertain its whereabouts have been taken”.
It emerged on Wednesday that Mr Varadkar had exchanged a number of texts with Ms Zappone, which he published, discussing her event in the Merrion Hotel, as well as her appointment by the Government as a UN special envoy for human rights.
Mr Varadkar has said he was on annual leave at the time the FoI request was processed and was not contacted to check his phone for any records.
The department’s response to the FoI request had stated “detailed discussions” with staff in the Tánaiste’s office had taken place to identify if any correspondence existed.
In refusing the request, the department noted it had tried “all practicable, possible means” of identifying any correspondence between Mr Varadkar and Ms Zappone.
In his statement on Thursday, Mr Varadkar said he had looked into the issue within his department.
“The relevant FoI office who received the request checked all emails and letters and found no records,” he said.
“I was on annual leave at the time the decision was released and I wasn’t contacted to check my phone for records,” he added.
Mr Varadkar said procedures would be put in place to ensure “this does not recur”, adding “we are of course sorry this happened”.
Mr Coveney faces scrutiny on several fronts.
His account of text exchanges with Mr Varadkar in mid-July about Ms Zappone’s proposed role as a special envoy was contradicted when Mr Varadkar released the content of the texts on Wednesday.
They showed that Mr Varadkar was fully aware of the role and that the decision to give her the position had been effectively made at that stage.
Mr Coveney had intimated to the committee that the concept of the role was still being considered at the time.
He also said Ms Zappone had not lobbied, yet the texts showed she had made an active enquiry to Mr Varadkar about the position.
Speaking on RTÉ on Thursday, Sinn Féin’s Ms McDonald claimed there was cronyism on the part of Fine Gael in Government and there had also been lobbying by Ms Zappone.
“What we have seen here is the latest instalment of insider, cosy crony politics around Fine Gael in particular,” she said.
“It’s clear that a makey-up job was provided for a friend of the Government, in this case Katherine Zappone.
“Despite protestations at the beginning, there was lobbying underway for this job. It’s clear that Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney were across all this and the Taoiseach was kept in the dark.
“It’s clear that Simon Coveney was less than forthcoming at the committee and in fact offered misleading and incomplete information.” She said the Minister needed to go back into the committee and give a full frank and credible explanation as to what happened.
“The Taoiseach needs to take action. It’s incredible to see yet again the head of Government blindsided by the two principals from Fine Gael,” she said.
Fine Gael Minister Simon Harris, speaking on the same programme said Mr Coveney would supply clarification but rejected the charge it was a “divvy-up” for Ms Zappone.
He argued that Mr Cowen comparing his case to Mr Coveney’s was not an appropriate comparison.
“We are not comparing apples with apples here. Simon Coveney was going about his job.
“He admitted many weeks ago that the process followed was not right and has apologised to the Taoiseach. Lessons have been learned. There has to be a sense of perspective.”