It has taken a full six weeks for Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and the Government to give the impression that they take seriously the controversy over their appointment of a former cabinet colleague to the post of United Nations envoy.
In Coveney's contrite tone at the Oireachtas foreign affairs committtee – the "fiasco" of Katherine Zappone's appointment and its fallout was compounded by his own "sloppiness" in his previous evidence to the committee, he said – there was a sharp contrast with his original attitude to the furore in late July. Then, he appeared above all irritated at having to answer questions about the appointment at a time when, as he made clear, he had important international work to attend to. The difference now is that the Government is struggling to be heard on any other issue, and it is no longer inconceivable that Coveney could lose his job over the debacle.
An Oireachtas committee is not the place to go for forensic interrogation. But between rambling speeches on Tuesday, a number of incisive questioners succeeded in highlighting the legitimate reasons for public disquiet over the affair. They may not have disproved Coveney’s version of events, but even that account presents a decidedly unflattering picture. If one were to accept everything Coveney says at face value – and many certainly will not – he made at least five big mistakes.
He failed to see that there might be anything wrong with unilaterally appointing a former colleague to a nice position in New York, or the political impact that might have. In March he failed to tell Zappone she had not actually been offered that job even though her texts to him clearly show she believed that to be the case – well before Department of Foreign Affairs officials began thinking about creating an envoy role. He blindsided the Taoiseach by failing to tell him about the appointment before it came up at Cabinet. He deleted official records which should be kept for archiving and transparency purposes and admitted that he does this routinely (Coveney’s definition of official business was extremely narrow and totally unconvincing). And, when the controversy ignited, he gave partial and confusing evidence to an Oireachtas committee.
Coveney is adamant that the envoy role was not designed for Zappone, and that its creation was the result of extensive deliberations in his department. But the plain fact is that Zappone got it because she had a direct line into the minister. The role may not have been lucrative, but it was a valuable career opportunity.
In political circles, the entire saga feels like the work of a party – Fine Gael – that has grown complacent after 10 years in office. Beyond the walls of Leinster House, many will understandably see it as yet another glimpse into a club whose members look out for their own.