Varadkar, Coveney and Donohoe apologise to FG colleagues for Zappone controversy

Tánaiste admits to FG members that envoy issue has overshadowed party’s good work

Fine Gael leader Tánaiste Leo Varadkar at the Trim Castle Hotel for the Fine Gael parliamentary party think-in. Photograph: Collins Dublin

Fine Gael leader Tánaiste Leo Varadkar at the Trim Castle Hotel for the Fine Gael parliamentary party think-in. Photograph: Collins Dublin

 

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and two of his most senior Ministers have apologised to Fine Gael colleagues for the controversy over the appointment of Katherine Zappone and the “unforced errors” that overshadowed the Government’s work over the summer.

Mr Varadkar has also insisted that Ms Zappone’s name was on a memo that was sent to the Department of the Taoiseach the night before the former Independent minister was selected for the role which she later declined.

His remarks at Fine Gael’s pre-Dáil think-in meeting in Trim, Co Meath, come after Fianna Fáil Minister Michael McGrath disputed Mr Varadkar’s suggestion in an RTÉ interview that Ms Zappone’s name was in a memo prepared for the July 27th Cabinet meeting.

Speaking on Monday, the Minister for Public Expenditure Michael said Ms Zappone was not mentioned in a document which he described as “an under the arm memo” submitted to the Taoiseach’s office on July 26th.

Controversy over the appointment of Ms Zappone first arose when it emerged that Taoiseach Micheál Martin was not aware of the plan to select her for the role prior to the Cabinet meeting.

Asked at a press conference on Monday about Mr McGrath’s comments, Mr Varadkar replied: “we’re actually both right”.

He said the memo given to the Taoiseach and other Ministers on the morning of the Cabinet meeting did not include Ms Zappone’s name and those of ambassadors to be appointed.

However, he said another memo sent by Department of Foreign Affairs secretary general Niall Burgess to the Department of the Taoiseach secretary general Martin Fraser the night before the meeting did include her name.

“It also doesn’t particularly matter because the responsibility was on Simon Coveney as minister and me as party leader to flag this politician to politician. That’s where the error was made. And that’s what I’ve apologised for several weeks ago now,” he said.

He said the controversy would have been averted “if I did my job properly and [Minister for Foreign Affairs] Simon Coveney did his job properly regardless of memos being sent.

“We have a responsibility as politicians to inform people at a political level and we didn’t do that and that’s why we took responsibility for it and apologised for it weeks ago.”

Mr Varadkar also said that he, along with Mr Coveney and Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe, have apologised to their own party for the controversy that has dominated the political agenda over the summer.

While it was Mr Coveney who was directly involved in the plans to appoint Ms Zappone to the role of special envoy on freedom of expression, Mr Donohoe had suggested to her that she seek Mr Coveney’s advice on a possible United Nations role.

Mr Varadkar said of the apology to Fine Gael colleagues: “This [think-in] should have been a meeting where we were talking about the enormous successes and the enormous progress that the country and the government have made over the summer”.

He listed these as “one of the best vaccination programs in the world”, Covid-19 restrictions being eased and businesses reopening and the Government’s Housing for All plan.

“Instead of talking about those things over the summer, people were focusing on unforced errors made by senior Fine Gael politicians, including me,” he added.

A spokesman for the Taoiseach reiterated that Mr Martin was not informed of the name proposed for the appointment of a UN Special Envoy before Cabinet.

“Nor was he alerted at the leaders meeting the evening before the Cabinet, and the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs have apologised for this.

“The first time the Taoiseach was aware that Katherine Zappone was being nominated for a role was at the Cabinet meeting, once the memo was distributed.”

The spokesman said an email from Mr Burgess to Mr Fraser was sent at 9.24pm on the night before Cabinet.

However, he added: “This was not sent to anyone else in the department until the following morning, when it was sent to the Government Secretariat just before Cabinet.”