Zappone job saga is not going away as Piglet confirms 

Zappone job saga is not going away as Piglet confirms 

As Simon Coveney boarded a plane on official business, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar released a series of text messages which he hoped would draw a line in this sorry saga. Picture: Sam Boal

“Hi Leo, from the Piglet,” came the text from former Minister Katherine Zappone to Tánaiste Leo Varadkar at 9.06pm on the evening of Friday, July 16.

The Piglet is a fashionable wine bar in Dublin’s Temple Bar, where the former Children’s Minister who had just arrived in from the US penned a text to her former Cabinet colleague and chum.

During their four years in Cabinet, the pair had developed a bond and Zappone had no difficulty pledging her loyalty to Varadkar on his elevation to the Taoiseach’s office in 2017.

“I was expecting to hear from Simon C about my appointment as Special Envoy for Human Rights and LGBTQ+ issues. Have you heard anything? If you are around next Wed, hope to see you and Matt!” she wrote.

This, we are led to believe, was Varadkar’s first knowledge of the job.

What we do know is that he definitely knew about it a full 11 days before Taoiseach Micheál Martin was left “blindsided” at Cabinet by Varadkar and Simon Coveney over the matter.

This sorry tale which has evolved into a saga of ministerial phone hacks, the deletion of messages and ongoing questions about leaks from Cabinet, continues to develop.

Just how has an appointment of a tiny part-time job come to cause such controversy and do the Government so much damage?

The beginning:

After losing her Dáil seat and leaving Cabinet in 2020, Ms Zappone moved to live full time in New York.

She contacted Mr Coveney in a brief conversation and she mentioned that she would be available to help in any way she could in Ireland’s work at the United Nations. “Katherine and I spoke now and again as former colleagues do,” Mr Coveney has confirmed.

“At no point in the conversation did I consider she was lobbying me for a job,” he said.

Since February, Mr Coveney reflected on the fact that Ms Zappone was a former Irish minister, had been heavily involved in our Security Council campaign, and a campaigner all her life on issues on equality, and was now living in New York.

“Late in February, I met with my secretary-general to review our first months on the Security Council. At the end of that meeting, I asked him for his view on whether Katherine Zappone could be of any use to our team in New York. He told me he would reflect on it,” he said.

The offer:
Mr Coveney’s department devised the envoy role and he as minister approached Zappone and asked if she'd be interested in taking this role in principle.

“I handed the process back to my secretary general. I was not involved in any point in any discussions around the terms and conditions, which wasn't unusual,” Mr Coveney said.

Merrion Hotel event:
Responding to Ms Zappone on July 16, Mr Varadkar said “nope” in relation to whether he had heard about the envoy job. He said he could make it to the Merrion but asked “is it definitely legal? Probably ok. Organised outdoor gathering of fewer than 200 people?”

Ms Zappone replied: “Yes it is 50 people outdoors and the Merrion has confirmed it is compliant”.

Three days later, Mr Varadkar contacted Mr Coveney by text saying: “Hi. Seeing Katherine Zappone on Wednesday. Do you know anything about her becoming our LGBT envoy?”

Mr Coveney responded a few hours later by saying: “Yeah, I spoke to Katherine tonight. She’s meeting with Niall Burgess on Wednesday to finalise a 12-month contract to be an Irish Govt Special Envoy for Freedom of Expression and Human Rights (with a focus on LGBT). She seems very happy. I plan to have it in a memo for Government next week. SC.”

At the controversial event on July 21, Ms Zappone and the Tánaiste discussed the role briefly and he expressed his support for her.

The leak and the blindsiding of the Taoiseach:

Six days after the Merrion Hotel event, the final Cabinet of the session convened and Mr Coveney introduced his memo which related to ambassadorial appointments. Also contained in that memo was the Ms Zappone appointment.

Despite him and the Tánaiste knowing about it for some time, the news of Ms Zappone came as a “surprise” to the Taoiseach, who queried the merit of the envoy role.

Coveney realised a mistake had been made and apologised.

“We made a mistake, though, in terms of how that was brought to government, and I apologise to the Taoiseach for that, and I think he accepts that,” he said.

As Cabinet was still ongoing, news of the appointment was reported online by the Irish Examiner

The fallout:
Ms Zappone’s appointment went down like a lead balloon within the main government parties. Fine Gaelers still resented Ms Zappone for the role she played in Enda Kenny’s downfall in 2017.

Fianna Fáil TDs were angry that it was their ministers and not Fine Gael ministers who had to defend the saga on the airwaves.

Amid considerable consternation and after several days of silence, Ms Zappone eventually relented and decided not to take up the role.

Requests from the media for access to records relating to the process were initially rejected on the basis they did not exist.

Phone hacking and the deletion of texts:
In a sign of the political anger around the appointment, the Fine Gael chair of the Oireachtas Foreign Affairs Committee, former Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan, agreed to haul Mr Coveney in before TDs to grill him on the Ms Zappone affair.

On Tuesday, as the country was readying itself for the news of the reopening, Mr Coveney faced two hours of robust and rigorous questioning, not from the opposition but his own government TDs.

During this session, he revealed that he had deleted text messages between himself and Ms Zappone and between himself and Mr Varadkar. Initially, we were told this was because of a space issue on his phone but then it became an issue of security.

It was an act of prudence given his phone had been hacked previously, he told us.

However, when queries to various government departments were asked as to when this phone hack occurred, we were told we were not entitled to know. As Mr Coveney boarded a plane on official business, Mr Varadkar  released a series of text messages which he hoped would draw a line in this sorry saga.

It might serve to save his skin, but whether Mr Coveney is yet made to walk the plank remains to be seen.

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