‘Oversight’ by Coveney in Zappone envoy appointment, says Taoiseach

Leo Varadkar dismisses Opposition ‘cronyism’ suggestions as ‘nonsense’

Katherine Zappone appointed  to the role of envoy for freedom of expression working with the United Nations .Photograph: Dave Meehan

Katherine Zappone appointed to the role of envoy for freedom of expression working with the United Nations .Photograph: Dave Meehan

 

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said there was an “oversight” by Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney in the procedures relating to the appointment of former minister Katherine Zappone as a special envoy.

Mr Martin was not told of the plan to appoint Ms Zappone to the role of envoy for freedom of expression working with the United Nations prior to Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting.

The job for the former Independent TD Ms Zappone – who was minister for children in the former Fine Gael-led minority government – prompted accusations of “cronyism” from the Opposition.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has dismissed this suggestion as “nonsense”.

He said Ms Zappone approached Mr Coveney about the position as she was now based in New York, and Mr Varadkar insisted she was one of the most qualified people for the job.

Mr Martin faced several questions on the matter at a press conference where he unveiled the Creating Our Future initiative that aims to collect 10,000 ideas from the public on the future of science and research.

The Taoiseach sought to play down the issue, saying “we need to keep things in perspective”.

He said there were 41 items on the Cabinet agenda, some of which were “very substantive” like the funding allocation for the National Development Plan, the Covid-19 vaccine rollout and legislation on personal responsibility for people working in financial services. He said Ms Zappone’s appointment was “not by any yardstick one of the key decisions”.

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Mr Martin said: “Minister Coveney has accepted it was an oversight in terms of procedures”, adding: “we move on now. it’s an issue you have to keep in perspective and leave it at that.”

The Taoiseach did not say whether or not Mr Coveney had apologised but said the Minister for Foreign Affairs called him last night,

Mr Martin said Mr Coveney “didn’t anticipate any of this furore and as far as he [Mr Coveney] was concerned he accepts fully it was an oversight in terms of the process and all that. But as I say all in good faith and we move on”.

Mr Martin conceded the Government can “learn lessons” from what happened.

He said the appointment of Ms Zappone as a special envoy has been done as part of a “pilot approach” to such roles and he did not commit to competitive processes taking place for such jobs in the future. Mr Martin said: “generally speaking all Governments have to have flexibility in terms of how they approach these issues. We take on board what people were saying as well of course”.

Mr Martin was also challenged on the plan for the secretary general of the Department of the Taoiseach Martin Fraser to be appointed as Irish Ambassador to the UK and the message this sent to career diplomats.

Mr Martin said Mr Fraser is an “exceptional public servant” with experience of Anglo-Irish relations, Brexit and Northern Ireland.

He added: “It’s not an unprecedented appointment in any shape or form. He is a relatively young civil servant with a lot of experience.”

Elsewhere, Mr Varadkar told RTÉ Radio’s Today with Claire Byrne show that there was a procedure whereby the names of such appointments were flagged during Cabinet meetings, but in this case that had not happened.

Mr Varadkar acknowledged he or Mr Coveney should have informed the Taoiseach of the appointment, but that had not happened.

Mr Varadkar said there had been items on the agenda at that meeting “of much greater importance” which was why the matter had fallen through, he said. The position was not “a plum, well paid” job, adding Ms Zappone would receive only €7,000 net after taxes while she would put hundreds of hours into the work.

If the position had gone to a retired civil servant “no one would have batted an eye”, he said, adding that retired politicians could be a resource.

Sinn Féin TD Mairéad Farrell claimed Ms Zappone’s appointment is an example of “Fine Gael cronyism”.

Aontú TD Peadar Tóibín said if Mr Martin was “blindsided” on the appointment it should be “reversed” and a “transparent recruitment process, open to everyone should be put in place”.