Government concedes Zappone controversy damages credibility

Department challenges claim Fáilte Ireland unable to get clarity on hospitality rules

Former minister Katherine Zappone and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar: “It has not been a good week, and the public’s perception of the Government has become quite negative,”  says Government Chief Whip Jack Chambers. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

Former minister Katherine Zappone and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar: “It has not been a good week, and the public’s perception of the Government has become quite negative,” says Government Chief Whip Jack Chambers. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

 

The Government has conceded the controversy surrounding an outdoor gathering organised by former minister Katherine Zappone has damaged its credibility and exposed shortcomings in its public health messages.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has admitted there was a lack of “clarity and consistency” in guidelines for outdoor events such as the one Ms Zappone held in the grounds of the Merrion Hotel.

The event was attended by 50 people, including Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Labour TD Ivana Bacik.

Government Chief Whip Jack Chambers also accepted the controversy had a detrimental impact on the Coalition’s reputation, although he welcomed the apology issued on Friday by Mr Varadkar.

“It has not been a good week, and the public’s perception of the Government has become quite negative,” Mr Chambers said on Sunday.

“I think we acknowledge and appreciate the frustration and the public anger around the events over the last number of days.”

Mr Chambers told RTÉ that lessons needed to be learned, especially in relation to the contradictions between the guidelines and the regulations which underpin them.

Varadkar’s ‘regret’

In a statement on Sunday, Mr Martin said Mr Varadkar had “expressed his regret for attending the event”.

Mr Martin acknowledged the uncertainty over how many were permitted at outdoor events was less than ideal.

“While the event did not breach regulations, the Government accepts that further clarity and consistency on guidelines was required,” he said.

It is unlikely the weekend statements by senior Government figures will draw a line under the two controversies: the first relating to Ms Zappone’s appointment as a special envoy to the United Nations, and the second pertaining to the social event she hosted six days prior to the appointment. Ms Zappone turned down the job last Wednesday after political pressure.

The Oireachtas foreign affairs committee, chaired by Fine Gael TD Charlie Flanagan, is expected to invite Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney to a meeting next month to explain why and how Ms Zappone was appointed.

Several Fianna Fáil backbench TDs continued to be critical over the weekend of the appointment and the Government’s handling of the matter.

Laois-Offaly TD Barry Cowen said Ms Zappone’s appointment had badly impacted the Government’s credibility. “It is hard to believe this wound was so brutally self-inflicted when it could have been rejected or postponed by the Cabinet,” he said.

Martin ‘blindsided’

He said Mr Martin being “blindsided”, by not being made aware of the pending appointment, was enough grounds to reject the proposal.

Cork North Central Deputy Pádraig O’Sullivan of Fianna Fáil said people were left confused by the lack of clarity surrounding both matters.

“What has added to their confusion was the absence of senior Ministers to go out and deal with the issue,” said Mr O’Sullivan.

“The Tánaiste’s appearance on Six One [RTÉ’s evening news programme] didn’t adequately address the issue and further added to the confusion.

“Unfortunately, and this is a widely held view, this appointment should never have gone beyond the Cabinet meeting two weeks ago,” he added.

Separately, the Department of Tourism has challenged weekend reports that Fáilte Ireland was unable to get full clarity on the Government’s rules on outdoor dining when it sought them in early July.

A spokesman for the department said the definition of outdoor events had been the subject of ongoing discussion between it and Fáilte Ireland. “It was recognised that further clarity would be needed in this area . . . There is no question of the department delaying in responding.”