Senior FG Ministers apologise to party over Zappone ‘unforced errors’

Varadkar, Coveney and Donohue begin think-in with apology to parliamentary party

Fine Gael’s pre-Dáil think-in meeting began with apologies from the three most senior members of the parliamentary party for the controversy over former minister Katherine Zappone’s appointment as United Nations special envoy, which has dogged the Government for seven weeks.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Ministers Simon Coveney and Paschal Donohoe expressed their regret for the "unforced errors" that have overshadowed the Coalition's work.

The mood at the meeting was said to be "sombre" and "contrite" as Fine Gael TDs and senators gathered in the Trim Castle Hotel ahead of a Sinn Féin no-confidence motion in Mr Coveney in the Dáil tomorrow.

Day one of the think-in was dominated with contributions on how the party could recover from what one source described as a “torrid time” it has experienced this summer.

Those present had been expecting a discussion on Fine Gael’s priorities for the budget but that has been put off until today as the postmortem of what went wrong in recent weeks went over time.

Mr Varadkar himself said the think-in should have been about Government successes such as the Covid-19 vaccination programme and easing of pandemic restrictions. “Instead of talking about those things over the summer, people were focusing on unforced errors made by senior Fine Gael politicians, including me,” he said.

Memo

However, it seemed like the row would all kick off again when Mr Varadkar suggested in an RTÉ interview yesterday morning that Ms Zappone's name was on a memo sent to the Department of the Taoiseach the night before that Cabinet meeting.

Fianna Fáil Minister Michael McGrath insisted Ms Zappone was not mentioned in a document which he described as "an under-the-arm memo" brought to Cabinet.

Mr Varadkar later sought to defuse the situation later saying: "We're actually both right." He said a memo sent by Department of Foreign Affairs secretary general Niall Burgess to the Department of the Taoiseach secretary general Martin Fraser the night before Cabinet did include her name, but the one given to Ministers on the morning of the meeting did not.

Regardless, Mr Varadkar said that if he and Ms Coveney had done their jobs properly and informed Mr Martin the controversy could have been averted.

In an effort to ensure the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting could be conducted in confidence Mr Varadkar asked TDs and senators to put their phones in a bag or on the ground at the start.

There was a reluctance among party members to offer details of what was discussed during the periods when there were breaks in proceedings.

Sources said the apologies by Mr Varadkar and other Ministers had been accepted and there had been no calls for leadership changes in the party. Many of the contributions were said to be supportive of Mr Coveney as he faces the Sinn Féin no-confidence motion tomorrow. There were criticisms of Sinn Féin for seeking to remove Mr Coveney with praise for his work on Brexit and Northern Ireland.

Points were made about how Fine Gael could use the situation to improve, with suggestions that the party could be “more humble” and “more accepting of criticism”.

Support

Ministers who spoke publicly were keen to show their support for the party leadership.

Damien English and Hildegarde Naughten expressed "total" and "complete" confidence in Mr Varadkar and deputy leader Mr Coveney despite the controversy and Fine Gael's stagnating or falling approval numbers in polls.

Mr Donohoe conceded it hadn’t been a good summer for Fine Gael.

He said there were “things that we wish we had done differently” but he also said the party had played a role in the decisions that had led to the reopening of the economy.

He said Fine Gael was “determined to build on the progress we’ve made and we will take Sinn Féin on”.

Mr Donohoe said those who had contributed to the meeting had emphasised the need for “unity” and how the party needed to be on the “front foot” in making the case for what it had delivered in Government.

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn is a Political Correspondent at The Irish Times

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