Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has come under pressure to explain the circumstances of former minister Katherine Zappone's appointment as a special envoy.
The diplomatic job for Ms Zappone, a former Independent TD who was minister for children in the last government, prompted accusations of “cronyism” from the Opposition yesterday. There has also been a call from Government TDs to dispel this claim and offer clarity on the appointment.
The controversy arose when it emerged that Taoiseach Micheál Martin had not been aware before Tuesday's Cabinet meeting of the plan to give Ms Zappone the role of "envoy for freedom of expression", which involves working with the United Nations.
Mr Martin sought to play down the issue saying "we need to keep things in perspective"and insisting it was not among the "key" decisions that had been made at the meeting.
“Minister Coveney has accepted it was an oversight in terms of procedures,” the Taoiseach said, adding “we move on now. It’s an issue you have to keep in perspective and leave it at that”.
However, there was further focus on Mr Coveney's role after Tánaiste Leo Varadkar revealed that Ms Zappone had approached Mr Coveney about the position. The Tánaiste told RTÉ: "She was our special envoy to the UN in the last government... She said she's available. She offered to do the work."
He dismissed suggestions of cronyism as “nonsense” insisting “she got this job because she is the person most qualified for it”.
Mr Varadkar also said “a special envoy is not a position typically that is advertised” and that it is not “a plum, well-paid” job. He said Ms Zappone would receive €7,000 net after taxes while she would put hundreds of hours into the work. He acknowledged that either he or Mr Coveney should have informed the Taoiseach of the appointment.
Neither the Department for Foreign Affairs nor Mr Coveney’s spokesman last night responded to questions on the circumstances of Ms Zappone’s appointment, including whether she had suggested the creation of the job or had made a pitch for it in writing.
The department instead issued a statement offering an explanation of the special envoy role saying it will “provide enhanced capacity for high-level engagement on a small number of established Irish human rights priorities” including “civil society space”, “human rights of LGBTIQ+ persons” and “freedom of expression and opinion”.
Ms Zappone did not respond to attempts to contact her.
Aontú TD Peadar Tóibín criticised the appointment. “It’s an incredible situation, that a friend, a former colleague of the Minister can simply ask for a job and get it. It shows that people with access to power have a massive advantage over regular citizens.”
Sinn Féin TD Mairéad Farrell claimed Ms Zappone's appointment was an example of "Fine Gael cronyism".
Fianna Fáil backbench TD Barry Cowen referred to Ms Zappone's approach to Mr Coveney and said: "I have no doubt that she may well fit the criteria or the capabilities necessary but does anyone else?"
He asked: “Is it something that could adequately have been done by a member of the Irish staff attached to the UN for example.”
He told RTÉ Radio’s Drivetime that “members of the Cabinet will know this or respond to it.”
Of the Opposition’s claims of cronyism, Mr Cowen said: “That’s easy for everybody to say. But look if there was more clarity brought to bear in relation to this issue I’m sure that could be dispelled.”
He said he expected that it would be.