Fraser declines to discuss cabinet leaks at Zappone hearing

But senior civil servant says ‘two, possibly three’ leak inquiries in the past failed to identify the source

Martin Fraser appeared  before the committee but former minister Katherine Zappone has declined an invitation to attend. Screengrab: Oireachtas TV

Martin Fraser appeared before the committee but former minister Katherine Zappone has declined an invitation to attend. Screengrab: Oireachtas TV

 

The State’s highest ranking civil servant has declined to discuss the issue of cabinet leaks at a Dáil committee hearing intended to examine the now abandoned appointment of Katherine Zappone as a special envoy.

Martin Fraser fulfils the dual role of secretary general to the Government and secretary general of the Department of the Taoiseach.

Mr Fraser said that his involvement was exclusively as secretary general to the Government, a role in which he and his officials coordinate the Cabinet agenda and manage the organisation of Cabinet business.

However, Sinn Féin TD John Brady pressed Mr Fraser on the wider issue of Cabinet leaks.

Mr Fraser confirmed that he was asked to investigate previous leaks of the Mother and Baby Homes report and said he was not “optimistic” about finding the source of the leaks. However, he repeatedly refused to discuss any investigations or concerns about the leaks.

“This is not the reason I was asked to attend the committee, and you know that,” he said. “I’m sorry, I’m really not going to discuss the investigation.”

“Do you think that this government has a problem with leaking?” Mr Brady asked.

“I’m a civil servant,” Mr Fraser replied. “I can’t start talking about this government or other governments . . . I really respect your views on this matter. But I’m not going to get into discussing this.”

Mr Fraser said that he had not been asked to ascertain how the information about Ms Zappone’s appointment came into the public domain. Mr Fraser said there had been “two, possibly three” leak inquiries in the past about different issues but none had identified the source of the leak. He declined to say whether he had spoken to ministers or the Garda as part of the inquiries.

The chairman of the committee Charlie Flanagan repeatedly intervened to disallow questions about cabinet leaks by Mr Brady, which he described as “politically mischievous”.

“Questions on the leaking of information from cabinet are beyond the remit of this meeting and this committee,” he said.

Controversy

Mr Fraser said he did not recall being informed of the proposed appointment of Ms Zappone before an email on the night before the Cabinet meeting but he did not rule out that it had been mentioned to him.

In response to questions from Social Democrats TD Gary Gannon, Mr Fraser said that he had not regarded the appointment of Ms Zappone as a significant issue on the Cabinet agenda. “This was nowhere near the top of my agenda,” he said.

Committee members sought to question Mr Fraser on other matters, includinghis own appointment as ambassador to the UK, which he is due to take up next year after he leaves the role at the Department of the Taoiseach after 11 years in the role.

Mr Fraser disputed what he said was the characterisation of the London role as “a handy number” by independent Senator Gerard Craughwell, but chairman Mr Flanagan repeatedly ruled that the diplomatic appointments were a different process to the Zappone appointment.

“I came into the civil service on an open competition and every promotion I ever got was on an open competition,” Mr Fraser said.

Controversy erupted in late-July over an attempt by Minister of Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney to appoint Ms Zappone as a special envoy for freedom of expression and LGBTQ+ rights.

Ms Zappone, a former minister, has turned down an invitation to appear before the committee to discuss the matter.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin was not aware of a plan to appoint her before it came before Cabinet just before the summer recess.

Moreover, Fianna Fáil has disputed a claim from Tánaiste Leo Varadkar’s that Ms Zappone was named as a UN special envoy in a memo sent to the Taoiseach’s office the day before the Cabinet discussed the proposed appointment.

“The memo with the name of Katherine Zappone was in the Taoiseach’s office, the day before the Cabinet meeting,” Mr Varadkar said earlier this month.

“Notwithstanding that, Simon Coveney and I had a responsibility to flag that to him as a Minister, me as a leader in Government, there should be good faith and no surprises, and I’ve spoken the Taoiseach about that, and apologised.”

Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath has disputed this and said that an “under the arm memo” sent to the office of the Taoiseach the day before the Cabinet meeting on July 27th did not mention Ms Zappone.

In mid-September, the Dáil voted confidence in Mr Coveney by 92 votes to 59.