Suggestions made by Zappone on rationale for special envoy role

‘I saw the Tánaiste last eve, and he’s really excited about this too,’ former minister said in email

Katherine Zappone hosted an event at the Merrion Hotel for about 50 people which was attended by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar. Photograph: Tom Honan

Suggestions made by former minister Katherine Zappone on the rationale for the role of special envoy on freedom of expression were incorporated into "a concept note" on the post after she met then Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) secretary general Niall Burgess, new records show.

She met Mr Burgess to discuss the job on July 21st, the same day that Ms Zappone later hosted an event at the Merrion Hotel for about 50 people which was attended by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, information released by the Department of Foreign Affairs on Monday shows.

This was six days before her name was brought to Cabinet as the nominee for the job by Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney.

Throughout the controversy over the appointment Mr Coveney has said Ms Zappone did not lobby for the job.


However, correspondence surrounding the meeting between Ms Zappone and Mr Burgess provides insight into Ms Zappone’s involvement in finalising the rationale for the post.

Cabinet signed off on her appointment on July 27th, though Ms Zappone later decided not to take the job amid controversy over the appointment process.

The tranche of DFA records indicate that Ms Zappone was offered an envoy role by Mr Coveney as far back as March 4th.

A text message from Ms Zappone to Mr Coveney that day says: "Thank you so, so much for offering me this incredible opportunity. It will be such a privilege and I will be so proud to serve Ireland again."

‘Thematic focus’

Further records released by the department show that on March 23rd a department official asked colleagues to set up a meeting “for a discussion on a possible envoy in the human rights space”.

A document dated April 6th in the records is described as a “first draft of proposed SE on civic space” and it lists areas of “thematic focus” and “potential activities” for an envoy to possibly incorporate LGBTQ issues and gender equality.

The role was developed over the following months and by July 20th there was a document listed as “secretary general’s version of concept note”.

It set out “rationale” for the role of “special envoy on freedom of opinion and expression” saying it would “provide enhanced capacity for high-level engagement on a small number of established Irish human rights priorities”. It also sets out “tasking” for the holder of the role.

The records show that Ms Zappone sent DFA a document on the “supporting rationale” for the special envoy role on the morning of her July 21st meeting with Mr Burgess. She wrote that the role would form part of the “greater foreign policy objectives enshrined in ‘The Global Island’” initiative. Her document also says the establishment of the role is “extremely timely. Not only in terms of the growing prominence and import of the issues involved, but in terms of the opportunity to enhance Ireland’s global standing in general”.

‘Revised note’

After the meeting Mr Burgess emailed Ms Zappone saying he had developed the concept note to reflect their discussion. Mr Burgess added: “I really liked your expansion on the rationale and I took the liberty of incorporating that too.” He said: “a singe (sic) page has now become two!”

Mr Burgess asked her to take a look at the note and added: “once we agree it’s a good basis, I’ll share with the Minister”. He added: “I’ll also get some work done on a draft contract once we have the concept pinned down.”

Ms Zappone replied: “The revised note captures everything so well of our collective efforts.” She said: “I saw the Tánaiste last eve, and he’s really excited about this too.”

Mr Coveney brought the memo to Cabinet proposing Ms Zappone’s appointment as the special envoy on July 27th.

The move sparked controversy after it emerged that Taoiseach Micheál Martin had not been made aware of the plan to appoint her prior to the meeting. The appointment of a former minister prompted Opposition accusations of “cronyism” which were rejected by the Government.

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn is a Political Correspondent at The Irish Times