Varadkar and Coveney reignite Katherine Zappone controversy

Three political protagonists still have some explaining to do on botched UN appointment

Katherine Zappone’s first text to Leo Varadkar on July 16th explicitly asks him about the UN role and said she was expecting to hear from Simon Coveney. File photograph: The Irish Times

Katherine Zappone’s first text to Leo Varadkar on July 16th explicitly asks him about the UN role and said she was expecting to hear from Simon Coveney. File photograph: The Irish Times

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There is a political axiom from American politics that states: “When you are explaining you’re losing.”

The renewed controversy over the past 24 hours surrounding the botched appointment of Katherine Zappone as a UN special envoy gives a text book illustration of this.

After her appointment was first made public, the biggest outcry surrounded a suggested breach of Covid-19 guidelines at the outdoor event she organised in the Merrion Hotel in July. Of course, the context of that was the age-old charge made against governing parties, of “insiders”, “golden circles” and “elites”.

And it is those issues that have dominated this evolving narrative since Tuesday, with the two most senior figures in Fine Gael – Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney – finding themselves once again in an uncomfortable spotlight alongside their erstwhile Cabinet colleague.

The tinderbox this week was lit when Coveney appeared before the Oireachtas foreign affairs committee on Tuesday evening to face questions about the circumstances leading up to the former minister for children’s appointment.

Within hours of his contribution, he found himself under renewed pressure because of new information he disclosed, as well as his account not being consistent with what had been known until then. By Wednesday, both Varadkar and Zappone were also facing new questions about who knew what and when.

Coveney disclosed for the first time that Varadkar was aware of Zappone’s imminent appointment much earlier than was previously known. Until then, it was understood the Tánaiste had learned of the appointment at a Fine Gael ministerial meeting early on July 27th, just before the Cabinet meeting that endorsed her appointment as Special Envoy on Freedom of Expression and LGBTI+.

Coveney said Varadkar texted him in mid-July to say he was meeting Zappone and was there anything he should tell her. He also revealed he had received an invite for the Merrion event but had paid it no heed. He could not tell the committee about the dates because, he said, he had deleted his texts.

By Wednesday morning, Sinn Féin was accusing him of deleting his texts to avoid answering a Freedom of Information request about all contacts between him and Zappone. It was then that Coveney made the extraordinary revelation that he regularly deletes his texts because he had been previously hacked.

There was a basis to this. In August 2020, Coveney was subject to a phishing scam and contacted hundreds of people in his phone contacts to say to ignore any message they may have received from him. However, deleting the texts also gave rise to issues relating to the obligation of Ministers to retain all relevant information.

Contradicting Coveney

The narrative took another twist later in the day when Varadkar released screenshots of text exchanges between himself and Coveney, and also between himself and Zappone. They disclosed that far from making a general and unspecific inquiry, Varadkar specifically asked Coveney about the special envoy job.

This seemed to contradict what Coveney told the committee. He had also told the committee he texted Varadkar to say they were considering a role for Zappone. His text to the Tánaiste on July 19th clearly shows that the job had all but been given to her and she was meeting the secretary general of the department on July 21st – the day of the Merrion Hotel event – to finalise the contract. Furthermore, he disclosed for the first time that he had spoken to her that day.

Throughout, Coveney has said Zappone did not lobby for the job. But her first text to Varadkar on July 16th explicitly asks him about the role and said she was expecting to hear from Coveney. That prompted Varadkar to specifically ask Coveney about it.

All of which feeds into the accusations of an insider appointment. As Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty claimed the story reveals “somebody lobbying for a job paid out of the public purse”.

The controversy has put Fine Gael on the back foot and caused annoyance in Fianna Fáil that the Housing for All launch will be overshadowed by this matter. The three protagonists – Zappone, Varadkar and especially Coveney – still have some explaining to do.

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