Simon Coveney survives motion of no confidence in Dáil over botched Zappone appointment

Dáil hears claim Simon Harris was Cabinet member who leaked proposed appointment

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has survived a Dáil motion of no confidence by 92 votes to 59. In a speech prior to the vote Coveney lashed out at Sinn Féin, accusing the party of "reinforcing a false narrative of cronyism."

 

The Dáil has voted confidence in Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney by 92 votes to 59.

Sinn Féin proposed a motion of no confidence in the Minister after his handling of the failed appointment of former minister and cabinet colleague Katherine Zappone as a special envoy to the UN on freedom of speech and LGBT rights.

But the Government’s counter motion of confidence was passed with the support of a number of Independents.

It is understood all four absent government TDs were paired.

During a long debate on Wednesday evening Sinn Féin TD Matt Carthy claimed it was Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris who was the Cabinet member who leaked the proposed appointment of Ms Zappone as a special envoy to the UN.

Mr Carthy claimed that “rather than dealing with the debacle Fine Gael were running a sting operation to expose that Simon Harris had leaked the appointment from the Cabinet meeting because that is how business is done. Appointments to public bodies right up to the Supreme Court are decided not by what you know but by who you know”.

Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris. Photograph Nick Bradshaw
Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

A spokeswoman for Mr Harris said later “this was a clear misuse of Dáil privilege and it is untrue”.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the creation of the role of special envoy to the UN and the attempted appointment was handled carelessly but by any fair measure it would be completely out of proportion to remove a Minister on the basis of what is involved in this matter.

He was expressing confidence in Mr Coveney to counter the Sinn Féin motion of no confidence in the Minister over his handling of the failed appointment of Ms Zappone to the role.

The debate began just minutes after Fianna Fáil TD Marc MacSharry resigned from the parliamentary party and said he would vote against Mr Coveney.

Fianna Fail TD Barry Cowen confirmed in the Dáil however that he would vote confidence in Mr Coveney.

A persistent critic of the Taoiseach, the former minister said “the envoy appointment fiasco represented a failure of leadership and collective responsibility at the heart of the Coalition”. He said there was no demand for such an envoy and it was easy for the public to perceive that “this was a set of insiders looking after their own”.

He said “there isn’t unanimous absolute” confidence in the Minister within Fianna Fáil, in the way he handled the issue. The whole sorry episode may well represent the last chance moment for all concerned.”

But he said not voting for the Government would seriously curtail our ability to best serve our constituents” in delivering the programme for government”.

The Taoiseach told the Dáil the motion of no confidence has nothing to do with seeking to protect the State or assert the rule of law.

“We are debating this motion because one party decided it was a handy way to get publicity and deliver populist sound effects.”

He said the role of special envoy was “created carelessly and handled badly” but Mr Coveney had apologised personally and “I have received public and private apologies, and more importantly procedures have been put in place to ensure it never happens again.

“We have been asked to accept that the non-appointment of Katherine Zappone to a temporary, and part time appointment is a gross, abuse of office. This is manifestly not the case”.

Former minister Katherine Zappone. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Former minister Katherine Zappone. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

He said Sinn Féin demanded a standard of accountability that goes well beyond anything it had ever shown.

In a trenchant attack on Sinn Féin Mr Martin said some of the party leader Mary Lou McDonald’s comments were “breathtaking in their cynicism. They were forced to bring the motion because they were “not prepared to look the other way”.

But he said looking the other way has been the defining response for Sinn Féin in many more sinister issues and he highlighted cases where the party appointed its own members to roles in office.

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said Mr Coveney’s work on Brexit showed “what a capable Foreign Minister he has been”.

He said they needed Ministers who will take initiative and push the boundaries sometimes of what can be done and that was typical in terms of Ms Zappone taking on a critical role of envoy for LGBT rights.

He also said he wanted to speak “of her good name and her good reputation” and her role and experience in government “makes her a very good person and well qualified” to be a special envoy on LGBT rights. Mr Ryan said there were problems with this process and “we have to call that out”.

But Ms McDonald said “we’re here because the Taoiseach refuses to do his job” to hold Mr Coveney to account. Mr Coveney sought to make up a job for a friend and former colleague and “when caught red-handed he went about covering his tracks. He destroyed records he was obliged to keep and twice fed a cock and bull story to a committee of this Oireachtas”.

She said it was an abuse of office by any standard and “Sinn Féin was left with no option but to move a no confidence motion”. She claimed the Government had gone to great lengths to “cast this fiasco as a non-issue” and want people to “sweep all this under the carpet”. It was “proof positive that Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have held power for far too long and the cronyism that you so loudly defend is precisely the brand of culture that has squandered the hopes of generations”.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said it was an honour and privilege to express my full confidence in my friend and colleague”. He said that without Mr Coveney the Northern Ireland executive would not be in place today.

He was leading Ireland’s efforts on the UN Security Council and Brexit and he had put back a Northern Ireland executive that Sinn Féin had collapsed.

Independent Clare TD Michael McNamara said that to remove a Minister for Foreign Affairs at this moment would damage not the Government parties, but Ireland.

Independent Sligo-Leitrim TD Marian Harkin said the colour of the card shown to Mr Coveney should be yellow, not red.

Limerick Independent TD Richard O’Donoghue pointed to the Sinn Féin benches and said not one of them would be fit to replace Mr Coveney at the present time.

Social Democrats TD Gary Gannon said his party rejected a “cronyism culture” where a Minister believed that only a person they favoured and whose credentials and experience they value could become an envoy.

Former Labour minister Brendan Howlin said he hoped the Freedom of Information legislation would be fully put into effect.

Mr Coveney told the Dáil “I take my share of blame for this debate”. He said he could have and should have dealt with the issue “much more comprehensively in early August”.

As the final speaker in the almost two hour debate the Minister stressed that the role was “conceived, designed and recommended to me following consultations with my department”.

He said it was his decision and was “in no way corrupt or dishonest”. Mr Coveney said he regretted the appointment had distracted from the work of Government.

Addressing his own colleagues Mr Coveney said “I know you’re less than impressed” but he thanked them for their trust, sense of perspective “and your decency”.