Zappone turns down UN special envoy job after political pressure

Former minister was facing questions about both manner of appointment and hotel event she organised

Former minister Katherine Zappone said: “Prior to organizing the event I enquired, and was assured by the Merrion Hotel, that the event would be in compliance with government Covid-19 restrictions and guidelines.” File photograph: Dave Meehan

Former minister Katherine Zappone said: “Prior to organizing the event I enquired, and was assured by the Merrion Hotel, that the event would be in compliance with government Covid-19 restrictions and guidelines.” File photograph: Dave Meehan

 

Former minister Katherine Zappone has said she is turning down a Government job to act as a special envoy to the United Nations after criticism about the manner of her appointment.

In a statement by email on Wednesday afternoon, Ms Zappone said: “While I am honoured to have been appointed by the Government to be the Special Envoy on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, it is clear that criticism of the appointment process has impacted the legitimacy of the role itself.

“It is my conviction that a special envoy role can only be of real value to Ireland and to the global community if the appointment is acceptable to all parties.

“For this reason, I have decided not to accept this appointment, and I have communicated my decision to the Minister for Foreign Affairs.”

Political pressure had been growing on Wednesday as attention turned to an event organised by Ms Zappone last month.

Ms Zappone organised the private outdoor event when she was in Dublin, prior to her appointment to the role as a special envoy.

The event was held in the Merrion Hotel, which has said it was done in line with guidelines for such events. There were around 50 people at the event.

Ms Zappone, who now lives in New York, was asked by Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney to become Ireland’s special envoy – a job taking 50 days a year of work, and worth €15,000 a year in pay.

The appointment has caused controversy as Mr Coveney confirmed no one else was considered for the role.

In a statement on Wednesday afternoon, Mr Coveney said: “I note the statement from Dr Katherine Zappone stating she will not now take up a special envoy position.

“I understand her decision and thank her for being willing to work on Ireland’s human rights priorities.

“For my part, I accept that mistakes were made in how this appointment was brought to government and lessons will be learnt from that.”

Ms Zappone earlier released a statement about the hotel event, details of which were first reported in the Irish Independent.

“Please contact the Merrion Hotel for their statement regarding compliance with government Covid-19 restrictions and guidelines for my private event,” she said in a statement to RTÉ News, in what was her first public comment about the matter.

“Prior to organizing the event I enquired, and was assured by the Merrion Hotel, that the event would be in compliance with government Covid-19 restrictions and guidelines.”

Event guidelines

In its statement on the event hosted by Ms Zappone, the Merrion Hotel said: “At all times since the start of the pandemic, we have adhered to Government public health measures including the relevant guidelines that were in place at the time of the event you reference on July 21st.

“These have since been updated on July 23rd. Government regulations at the time allowed for outdoor events of up to 200 people, and the definition of that includes social events.”

The Government confirmed this later in a statement, saying advice from the Attorney General was that organised events and gatherings could take place for up to 200 people “including social, recreational, exercise, cultural, entertainment or community events”.

The Government acknowledged there was some public confusion about the matter, however, and guidelines on outdoor events would be updated “to ensure that people have clarity” on the gatherings.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar confirmed in a statement that he was one of those who attended the outdoor gathering on the grounds of the hotel.

“I always strive to adhere to Covid restrictions and as a public representative I try to be extra careful in that regard,” Mr Varadkar said.

Labour Party TD Ivana Bacik also confirmed that she was among the 50 attendees at the event.

She told The Irish Times that she was “briefly in attendance for approx 15/20 minutes at an outdoor event organised by Katherine Zappone on 21st July that I understood was within the guidelines”.

Earlier, Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Farrell contrasted Ms Zappone’s event with the treatment of First Communions and Confirmations.

“You know it’s okay to have a bash in the Merrion Hotel with 50 people present. But yet, it’s not possible for a parent to take their child along to receive the sacrament,” he told RTÉ Radio One.

Duncan Smith, the Labour Party TD for Dublin Fingal, said on Twitter it was time for Ms Zappone to “break her silence and decline this appointment”.

Social Democrats TD for Dublin Central Gary Gannon claimed the event was “grubby” and said the appointment should be halted until it had received proper Dáil oversight.

He added, however, that Ms Zappone “could just recognise that public trust has been damaged here and withdraw”.

Fianna Fáil Senator Malcolm Byrne said there needs to be a “full and clear statement as to what happened”.

Mr Byrne said: “There’s is a lot of annoyance in Fianna Fáil about how this happened. The vaccine programme is now going really well, we have got significant housing legislation and investment through housing, infrastructure and education, and this is a distraction that should not have occurred.”

He said he has concerns about the envoy role, and that the process used to make the decision should be explained, as should whether it was suggested by Ms Zappone or the UN. “The Taoiseach appears to have been blindsided by the issue and that is poor form”

On Tuesday, Fine Gael’s Charlie Flanagan, chair of the Oireachtas Foreign Affairs committee, has said the “Zappone issue” should be discussed by committee members “as soon as practicable”.

He said that he had agreed with its members that the “Zappone issue should be placed on the agenda for discussion as soon as practicable”.

He said that he has sought extra information on the appointment from Mr Coveney’s Department.

“I have sought background briefing documents from the Department of Foreign Affairs on receipt of which I will circulate to members to inform the debate”.

“It’s expected Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney will assist the committee in its work,” he said.

However, it was expected it would be September before a meeting was convened, with members and committee staff unavailable at different times during August.