Unflattering optics as defensive Government offers same excuse twice

Ministers in hiding around Zappone appointment and Varadkar presence at hotel

A week may be a long time in politics but it is made all the more interminable when the Opposition are putting it up to you to come out of hiding.

That’s the position the Government found itself in on Friday after consecutive days of putting out benumbed backbenchers and Senators to defend the various elements of the special envoy saga.

When in trouble, Fine Gael have been known to send their trusty steeds Colm Brophy and Sean Kyne out into battle. Either they are viewed as a reliable pair of hands, or they are the only ones willing to get their hands dirty. Whatever the case, their various appearances were not making the grade in a week which shone a dim light on government communications.

One Government TD watching Kyne's appearance on Prime Time on Thursday night said he did so with his hands over his eyes. On the programme, the stony-faced Senator repeated ad nauseam that the event in the Merrion Hotel – hosted by former minister Katherine Zappone for about 50 people including Tánaiste Leo Varadkar before it was announced she would be appointed as a special envoy to the United Nations – was lawful, that no laws were breached, and that the laws were clear but the guidelines were not.

“Where are the Ministers? It is utterly bizarre. And quite telling,” the TD said.

On Friday morning, the Fáilte Ireland guidelines were updated to reflect the existing regulations that up to 200 people can gather outdoors for certain organised events. Around the same time, the Cabinet Covid-19 committee was meeting to discuss Covid trends and easing restrictions on Confirmations and Communions in September. It was agreed that a new road map for the live events sector, for office work and for indoor life would be unveiled by Cabinet by the end of August.

Outdoor events

Furthermore, live music could now take place at these lawfully organised outdoor events.

Yet it seems none of these major announcements or changes warranted a comment or appearance from a Cabinet Minister. To be fair, it is rare there is a press event after a Covid-19 committee meeting but, given the week that was in it, the optics were already highly unflattering.

By the afternoon, Sinn Féin were accusing Varadkar of being “in hiding” and challenged him to make himself available for questions.

Party TD Matt Carthy said questions had to be answered around whether the new hospitality guidelines were "based on public health advice" or designed to give "cover" to the Tánaiste for his attendance at the event.

Journalists who asked whether Mr Varadkar or any Minister would make themselves available to answer questions were told that the Green Party Minister of State for Heritage and Electoral Reform Malcolm Noonan would appear on Newstalk later that evening. "Where are the Ministers," Noonan was asked on The Hard Shoulder Programme. Pressed by host Kieran Cuddihy that this was not his area of expertise, Noonan referenced the "collective bailiwick" of Government.

Checked three times

It has been lost on no one, however, that the Cabinet has been MIA when it comes to defending the Tánaiste’s trip to the Merrion Hotel. There has been little in the way of discussion either on the decision of Zappone to step down from her role as special envoy. In any event Noonan was the first to reveal that the Tánaiste would in fact be surfacing and would make a statement.

Perhaps realising that another statement would not cut the mustard (a short one was released earlier this week), Varadkar chose instead to appear on RTÉ’s Six One News. He apologised for the controversy caused by his decision to attend the event but again said it did not breach regulations and “probably” didn’t breach guidelines. He said he checked three times. And yet Varadkar also admits he let his guard down on this occasion.

Observers were quick to note the Tánaiste made a point of attacking Sinn Féin for saying that he was in charge of negotiating the guidelines, which he says he was not.

At the end of the week, the message from the Government is that no laws were broken at the Merrion Hotel, but that businesses and the public could have been better informed by them about what exactly those laws are. It is strangely similar to the message they projected at the end of last week, when they effectively said there was no attempt to perform any underhanded moves with the appointment of Zappone but that the process could have been handled better. While there may be no great conspiracy lurking beneath the events of the last two weeks, a defence of it all being just a job badly done is of scant reassurance to the public.