Bungled Zappone appointment deflects attention from more serious issues

Cabinet fails to agree redress scheme or plan for live entertainment before summer break

Katherine Zappone: The bungling of the communication around her  appointment  does something of a disservice to her, whose credentials on human rights issues are not in doubt.  Photograph: Dave Meehan

Katherine Zappone: The bungling of the communication around her appointment does something of a disservice to her, whose credentials on human rights issues are not in doubt. Photograph: Dave Meehan

 

In an attempt to explain their way out of the controversy over the appointment of Katherine Zappone as a “free speech” envoy, the Government this week rolled out a whole host of unconvincing excuses. At the top of the list were the following: that it slipped through the cracks and wasn’t flagged properly because there were far more important things on the Cabinet agenda, and that people should not be making a mountain out of a molehill when it comes to the pay and terms of the role.

When asked how exactly the job was offered, the only tidbit given was that Zappone herself had volunteered for it.

Despite being kept in the dark by his own coalition partners, Micheál Martin wasted no time in declaring that everyone should “move on”, keep a bit of perspective and “leave it at that”.

The failure of the Cabinet to foresee a public reaction, and of Martin to take his Ministers more fully to task for blindsiding him, are both somewhat baffling

The Taoiseach is viewed by some of his colleagues as being a leader who has no desire to linger for too long on the uncomfortable conflicts that will inevitably arise between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. His attitude is that lessons are learned and life moves on.

Yet it is hard to imagine that this “oversight” did not give him reason for pause given the fact the usual clearing-house mechanisms were somehow bypassed at the last Cabinet of the political term.

Perhaps it is a sign of just how exhausted politicians are after a punishing year, but the failure of the Cabinet to foresee a public reaction, and the failure of Martin to take his Ministers more fully to task for blindsiding him, are both somewhat baffling.

In the hours after they rubber-stamped the appointment Ministers and Government spokesmen found themselves unable to answer even basic questions around the title of the role, the functions of the position or the pay associated with it.

Furthermore, saying on one hand that the issue was not flagged because it was not of sufficient importance while also announcing that the role will involve “high-level engagement” in the US would appear to be an odd contradiction.

The bungling of the communication around the appointment also does something of a disservice to Zappone, whose credentials on human rights issues are not in doubt

The normally unflappable Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe also left observers scratching their heads when he said that “Katherine would only be known by a small number or a few members of the Cabinet now” .

Fine Gael TDs privately admit that the way the issue has been handled has caused a not inconsiderate amount of angst amongst the backbenchers and grassroots.

The party has already taken a hammering at the hands of Sinn Féin about perceived favouritism following the admission by Leo Varadkar that he leaked a GP contract to a friend, a matter which is still simmering away under the surface.

The bungling of the communication around the appointment also does something of a disservice to Zappone, whose credentials on human rights issues are not in doubt.

There are still outstanding questions around the issue of access and remuneration.

In terms of access to such positions, what pool of candidates does the Government draw from (in that case it appears there was a pool of one) and when it comes to remuneration, what is the rationale?

The resumption of indoor dining and an increase in guests at weddings and baptisms were both welcome, but what is striking is the lack of a plan for the live events sector

For all the furore – and it is more than likely this storm will pass – it is what the Cabinet did not do this week that really casts it in an unflattering light.

On multiple occasions this year the Government said it would move quickly on setting up a redress scheme for survivors of Mother and Baby Homes. The need to be politically decisive was of vital importance given the advancing age of many of the survivors.

It was initially hoped that the details would be revealed in May, and after briefing and despite a short delay it would be ready before the summer recess.

Cabinet did not approve any such scheme at its last meeting, and it looks like it could be the autumn before it is ready now.

Instead the only update of slight relevance to the survivors was that the last minister at the helm for these matters, Zappone, was to start a new chapter as the Government special envoy for freedom of expression.

Secondly, while the health service and Government deserve much credit for the highly successful Covid-19 vaccine rollout, the consideration of the easing of restrictions this week neglected another major area of concern.

The resumption of indoor dining and an increase in guests at weddings and baptisms were both welcome, but what is striking is the lack of a plan for the live events sector.

Minister for Arts and Culture Catherine Martin warned her colleagues in a letter that the live entertainment sector was in danger of collapse, and that a path for reopening was urgently needed.

She raised this again at the Cabinet meeting, and was told by the Taoiseach that it would now actively be considered throughout August.

One Government source said that there was a concern that giving a date for reopening of this sector could “give the wrong message” to the public about where the country was at in the battle against Covid-19.

Getting the message right will clearly take a little bit more focus.

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