Q&A: What’s the latest on Simon Coveney’s texts and the special envoy role?

Release of message exchanges has brought fresh life to controversy over appointment

The controversy over the appointment of former minister Katherine Zappone to a United Nations (UN) special envoy role is back in the headlines. Photograph: The Irish Times

The controversy over the appointment of former minister Katherine Zappone to a United Nations (UN) special envoy role is back in the headlines. Photograph: The Irish Times

 

The controversy over the appointment of former minister Katherine Zappone to a United Nations (UN) special envoy role is back in the headlines. Ms Zappone ultimately opted not to take up the part-time position after Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar faced considerable criticism over how the whole process was handled.

When the matter came before the last Cabinet meeting of the summer, Taoiseach Micheál Martin had not been told it would be on agenda. Ministers have accepted that mistakes were made in the process and that Mr Martin should have been informed earlier, given it was politically sensitive.

Why has this controversy come back to the boil?

With politics coming back to life after the summer recess, Mr Coveney spent two hours before the Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs on Tuesday.

He gave his account of his role in the process of appointing Ms Zappone as special envoy to the UN on LGBTI+ rights and freedom of expression, a decision on which came before the Cabinet on July 27th.

However, Mr Coveney was on Wednesday accused of omitting key information and of being inconsistent in his explanation to the committee after text message exchanges between Mr Varadkar and Ms Zappone, and Mr Coveney and Mr Varadkar from the weeks prior to the Cabinet decision were published.

The Minister told the committee he had responded to a text from Mr Varadkar about 10 days before the appointment went to Cabinet, which he said referred to Mr Varadkar meeting Mr Zappone but said nothing about the job. He said he told Mr Varadkar that Ms Zappone was being considered for the role and also insisted that Ms Zappone had not lobbied for the position.

What did Ms Zappone say in the texts?

She contacted Mr Varadkar on July 15th to remind him that the Merrion Hotel gathering, which created Covid-19 related controversy, was taking place on July 21st.

On July 16th she contacted him to say: “I was expecting to hear from Simon C (Coveney) about my appointment as Special Envoy for Human Rights and LGBTQ+ issues. Have you heard anything? If you (are) around next Wednesday, hope to meet you.”

Mr Varadkar text Mr Coveney on July 19th asking about the special envoy role.

Were there other inconsistencies in Mr Coveney’s account to the committee?

Mr Coveney had said the concept of the role was still being discussed at the time he text Mr Varadkar on July 19th. But it seems from the exchange between the two that any debate over the role was all but settled by then.

Mr Coveney wrote: “Yeah, I spoke to Katherine tonight. She’s meeting Niall Burgess (the secretary general of his department) on Wednesday to finalise a 12 month contract to be an Irish Govt Special Envoy for ‘Freedom of Expression and Human Rights’ (with a focus on LGBT). She seems very happy. I plan to have it in a memo for the Govt next week. SC.”

The meeting mentioned in the text was on the same day as the Merrion Hotel event. Ms Zappone text Mr Varadkar on the day saying: “Just remind you about the reception in the Merrion from 5.30 to 7pm. I will say a few words at 6ish.”

Why did the hotel event become controversial?

Mr Varadkar met Ms Zappone at the event and briefly discussed her new position. Some members of the Opposition have claimed it was held as a celebration marking her appointment although other sources said it was a thank you for former colleagues who she worked in her time in politics.

The event, attended by around 50 people including Labour TD Ivana Bacik and senior Green Party official Dónall Geoghegan, made the headlines in its own right after the Attorney General Paul Gallagher was drafted in to clarify whether it was in keeping with the Covid-19 regulations in force at the time.

Mr Gallagher found that it was, much to the surprise of some in the hospitality sector who did not realise they could host outdoor gatherings for up to 50 people.

In her text exchanges with Mr Vardakar, Ms Zappone said the Merrion Hotel had told her the gathering was compliant with the pandemic rules.

Mr Coveney last month said he did not receive an invitation to the event. He on Tuesday said he was made aware the event was on but that he was not issued a “formal invitation”. He said he was not in the country at the time and would have had no interest in going along regardless.

So, what do the texts suggest?

They suggest that Mr Varadkar and Mr Coveney knew that Ms Zappone had the job by July 19th or July 21st. It was previously understood that Mr Varadkar only found out about the appointment on the morning of the July 27th with other Fine Gael Ministers when they spoke before the full Cabinet meeting. Mr Martin said he was unaware of the matter until a decision on it came before the Cabinet.

What this about Mr Coveney deleting texts?

The Minister told the committee he could not give specific dates on when he sent and received relevant texts because he had deleted them. He on Wednesday explained that doing so was because his phone was previously hacked and he regularly removed messages as a result.

It was explained that there was an incident last year where Mr Coveney was the victim of a phishing attack and had to let all of his contacts know not to respond to texts purportedly sent by him.

He on Thursday said his phone was used to send messages to EU foreign ministers after it was “compromised” and that the matter was investigated by gardaí.

“As a result of this incident and others, I work on the basis that very few telecommunications are completely secure.”

The Opposition have demanded to know if he deleted the texts before or after Freedom of Information requests about the appointment were made.

It has been suggested that by deleting the texts Mr Coveney may have breached legislation requiring office holders to retain written records relating to the performance of their roles.

So what happens now?

Mr Coveney says he is prepared to appear before the committee again to clarify matters. There is unhappiness in Fianna Fáil that former ministers such as Barry Cowen and Dara Calleary were made to stand aside following controversies but that this has not been matched on the Fine Gael side of Government. There may be more formal examinations to see if any legislation was breached by the deletion of texts.

Mr Varadkar has apologised that texts between Ms Zappone and himself discussing the Merrion Hotel gathering and her appointment as special envoy were not released in response to initial Freedom of Information requests from journalists, which were refused by his department as it said no such records could be found.