Q&A: Envoys, texts, Piglet... what is going on with the Katherine Zappone controversy?

Leo Varadkar said both he and Simon Coveney “accept our responsibility” over their handling of the affair.
Q&A: Envoys, texts, Piglet... what is going on with the Katherine Zappone controversy?

Katherine Zappone, Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar have dominated the news agenda over the past two days.

Questions about a special envoy role, text messages and claims about who knew what have been raised leading to the potential for a major Government announcement on housing to be overshadowed. 

For the uninitiated, this is what's been happening. 

How did this all begin?

In July, Irish Examiner Political Editor Daniel McConnell, broke the news that former Minister for Children Katherine Zappone was to be appointed a special envoy to the UN, with responsibility for freedom of opinion and expression.

It was later revealed that Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney appointed Ms Zappone to the role.

The €15,000-a-year role was not publicly advertised and it was suggested that Ms Zappone lobbied Mr Coveney for the job.

The Taoiseach had not been told of the proposal to appoint Ms Zappone to the role prior to the Cabinet meeting at which it was announced, with one source telling the Irish Examiner that Micheál Martin was “blindsided”.

What was the reaction to the appointment?

It wasn’t good.

There was a huge backlash to the appointment, both from the Opposition and from members of Government parties.

The Government attempted to play down the issue, with Mr Martin saying Mr Coveney accepted it was an “oversight” not to have informed him of the name in advance of Cabinet.

The Taoiseach said: “Minister Coveney has accepted it was an oversight in terms of procedures”, adding: “we move on now”.

Mr Coveney also rejected claims of cronyism, saying that the job was not a “makey-uppey” one. He said he spoke to Ms Zappone about it last year.

 Picture: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin
Picture: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

She expressed a willingness to offer help to Ireland’s cause at the United Nations now that she was living back in New York.

“She had been working with the Government to get Ireland on the UN Security Council,” Mr Coveney said.

“She contacted me to say 'if there is anything I can do, I am interested'."

He said they created the role and he, based on discussions with his officials, reached out to Ms Zappone and asked her to accept the paid job. He said he did not offer the job to anyone else because of her record as a minister, a lawyer, and her history of campaigning.

Mr Coveney later said at a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs that he did not consider Ms Zappone’s offer to help as lobbying.

Did Katherine Zappone take the job?

No. The former minister announced in August that she would not be taking up the role.

One factor was the controversy that arose from an event at the Merrion Hotel that she organised.

A private outdoor event was attended by the Tánaiste and around 50 others, six days before Ms Zappone was appointed to the role.

Mr Varadkar said that he confirmed in advance that the event was in compliance with the Covid-19 regulations at the time.

He said he stayed for 45 minutes and spoke with Ms Zappone briefly.

Picture: Gareth Chaney Collins
Picture: Gareth Chaney Collins

He added that he accepted that “mistakes were made in the manner in which Dr Zappone was appointed a special envoy and [I] regret the controversy it’s caused."

In turning down the role, Ms Zappone stated: "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."

Speaking about the Merrion Hotel event, Ms Zappone defended it saying she was assured by the hotel that it was compliant with the guidelines.

So what’s all this about text messages?

On Wednesday, Mr Varadkar released screenshots of text message conversations he had with Mr Coveney and Ms Zappone.

The texts with Ms Zappone on July 16 show that the Tánaiste was first made aware of the envoy role on July 16, prior to both the Merrion Hotel event and the Cabinet meeting announcing the position.

She asked Mr Varadkar if he had heard anything about the role; he said he hadn’t.

The text to Mr Coveney, on July 19, show that Mr Varadkar asked about the role.

“Hi, seeing Katherine Zappone on Wednesday. Do you know anything about her becoming our LGBT envoy?,” the Tánaiste texted.

“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,” Mr Coveney texted back.

At Tuesday’s committee meeting, Mr Coveney said that he had deleted some messages exchanged with Ms Zappone and Mr Varadkar in relation to the special envoy role and the Merrion Hotel event because of data-related concerns.

On Wednesday, he said he deleted text messages exchanged with other Government ministers on a regular basis because his phone has “been hacked”.

The Foreign Affairs Minister said it was “prudent” to clear his phone over hacking fears.

The Taoiseach later criticised the deleting of text messages saying it is not “best practice”.

Are there other issues with the text messages?

Yes. Freedom of Information concerns.

Sinn Féin said on Wednesday evening that major questions remain about the appointment of Ms Zappone and that the party is contacting the Information Commissioner to ensure that all necessary information is provided from the department in response to freedom of information requests.

Today, Mr Varadkar said there would not be sanctions for the freedom of information officer who failed to release the text messages when requested by journalists.

He said: “Because I was away and my senior staff were away, I wasn’t asked whether I had any messages on my phone.

“That’s what happened, an honest oversight. I don’t think there will be any consequences for the official involved. It would be very unfair.” 

So what now?

Mr Varadkar has said he will not consider his position over the whole affair, insisting the controversy is not “overshadowing” the work of the Government.

The Tánaiste said both he and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney “accept our responsibility” over their handling of the affair.

Higher Education Minister Simon Harris has said that Mr Coveney was “only too willing” to provide clarification about the appointment of Katherine Zappone as UN special envoy.

Paperwork will be published by the Department of Foreign Affairs to detail the pathway to the appointment, he told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland.

It comes as the Government prepares to publish one of its key policy initiatives, the Housing For All plan.

And what about Piglet?

In the text message from Ms Zappone to Mr Varadkar regarding the question about the envoy role, Ms Zappone wrote: "Hi Leo, from the Piglet!".

Piglet, a wine bar in Dublin’s Temple Bar, has since gone on to trend on Twitter with some referring to the controversy as PigletGate.

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