Taoiseach stops short of expressing confidence in Simon Coveney

Sources have said the Taoiseach accepts Minister Coveney gave his testimony in good faith and he has been consistent from the outset with his belief that Katherine Zappone was not asking for a job.
Taoiseach stops short of expressing confidence in Simon Coveney

Simon Coveney has apologised for his "sloppiness" and causing "a political embarrassment", over the Katherine Zappone appointment. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has rejected Opposition calls to sack Simon Coveney but insists the Katherine Zappone affair cannot happen again.

However, when asked, Mr Martin's spokesman stopped short of declaring confidence in Mr Coveney.

Speaking through his spokesman, he said the approach and process surrounding the selection of a UN part-time Special Envoy was wrong, and this should not have happened in the way it did.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs has apologised to the Taoiseach and Minister Ryan for this. 

Minister Coveney has now given his account to the Oireachtas Committee on the chronology of events that led to the appointment, joined by his former Secretary General, he said.

That said, lessons need to be learned by Government on the handling of this issue. 

"Firstly, any position of special envoy offered in future should only come through a fully open, transparent, and advertised competition," he said.

He said there will also be a full review of the role of special envoys and their use by the Government.

“Perception does matter in public life and appointments must be, and seen to be, fully open and transparent. There can be no doubt in the public’s mind about how appointments are made by Government in future," the Government Press Secretary said.

Sources have said the Taoiseach accepts Minister Coveney gave his testimony in good faith and he has been consistent from the outset with his belief that Katherine Zappone was not asking for a job.

"Perceptions matter however, and the Taoiseach understands many people have different perspectives on what went on," a source said.

Mr Martin has acknowledged that Minister Coveney is a hardworking and competent minister, and there is a need for balance, the source added. 

"Sloppiness"

The Taoiseach's comments follow Simon Coveney's latest appearance at the Oireachtas Foreign Affairs Committee over the issue. 

During the appearance, Mr Coveney apologised for his "sloppiness" and causing "a political embarrassment", over the appointment of Katherine Zappone.

On Monday it was revealed that Ms Zappone, the former children’s minister, thanked Mr Coveney in early March for offering her a UN envoy role, over four months before the Taoiseach was informed.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs said he was sorry "for creating the circumstances that require a second hearing in a week, on the same issue of the appointment of a special envoy."

"Due to the sloppiness of some of my answers to your legitimate questions last week, we are back here again in order to, I hope, bring clarity to any outstanding issues once and for all," he added.

Mr Coveney conceded that he, himself, "contributed to much" of the criticism and commentary, adding that "this is the first time that my integrity has been questioned on my political actions."

You can watch Mr Coveney's appearance before the Committee below

The Minister stated that Katherine Zappone did not ask for a job, at any stage and the idea of Katherine Zappone playing a role for the Irish Government came about from a short conversation Mr Coveney had with his Secretary-General on February 24.

A phone call was made on March 3 and text messages show that Ms Zappone thanked Mr Coveney for the offer on March 4.

Mr Coveney said it "wasn’t a job offer at that stage" and he has since conceded he should have replied to his former colleague stating it was not a concrete offer.

He says he did not speak to Katherine Zappone until July 19, despite the fact that she had been looking for updates.

"I have made mistakes in recent weeks, in failing to convincingly explain how this role came about and therefore contributing to what has become a political embarrassment for the Government," he added. 

Mr Coveney said he spoke with Ms Zappone on Sunday and told her that the text messages would be released, adding it was "a short conversation".

A phone call was made on March 3 and text messages show that Ms Zappone thanked Mr Coveney for the offer on March 4.
A phone call was made on March 3 and text messages show that Ms Zappone thanked Mr Coveney for the offer on March 4.

Fianna Fáil TD Barry Cowen said that Mr Coveney should have considered there was a conflict of interest in appointing Ms Zappone as she had been a minister in a Fine Gael government: "You offering a concept, turned out to be a role, you're aware of the legislation for a cooling-off period, and it was up to you to say: 'This is not on lads'."

'Plain old fashioned political strokes'

Sinn Féin's John Brady said that Mr Coveney deliberately misled the committee last week and that Ms Zappone lobbied Mr Coveney, the Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe and senior civil servants.

"This is plain old fashioned political strokes, leading to a scramble for cover, deleting messages, and changing stories."

Mr Brady added that Mr Coveney was "trying to fix the documents to fit a wholly unbelievable narrative."

Mr Coveney told the Committee that there are no written records of the conversation where Secretary-General Niall Burgess expressed a desire to create a special envoy role and it was an "informal" conversation.

Mr Burgess told the Committee that this appointment did not have "political" input.

Social Democrat TD Gary Gannon pointed out that Mr Coveney did not speak to Zappone between March and July, yet messages from Zappone state that he had "mentioned June as a start date".

"She had a start date for a job she wasn't offered and didn't exist yet," he said.

"It barely seems believable."

Mr Coveney said he "didn't feel pressured" by Ms Zappone which is why he didn't feel he was lobbied.

Mr Gannon noted that Ms Zappone contacted senior ministers and civil servants and it was not registered as formal lobbying.

"So friends of ministers, who used to be ministers, don't come under the same rules?" he said.

Mr Coveney said he deleted texts from his phone "when conversations conclude" and said it was a security issue.

"I don't think it's necessary to have texts on my phone cause something has concluded."

Mr Coveney said he cleared his texts to Leo Vardkar very quickly after the conversation about Katherine Zappone's appointment.

People 'deserve transparency'

Senator Catherine Ardagh said it was "astonishing" that Mr Zappone could "write the role herself" and that people "deserve transparency" on whether Mr Coveney was lobbied.

Mr Coveney replied: "All I can do is say what I experienced in this period, I saw the text messages as an enthusiastic person who wanted to get an update, I didn't see it as pressure.

"I can absolutely see why people see it as lobbying but I certainly didn't see it as that."

Sinn Féin senator Lynn Boylan said the process "stinks" and that there are now further questions for the Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe.

"This is someone who was a minister, who you say, has mistakenly believed she'd been offered a job," she said.

"Then in May asks of any word of the job, and in June start date, this should've set off alarm bells.

"At no point, no one in the department thought to contact Katherine Zappone and tell her there was no job yet?"

Mr Coveney said Zappone was formally informed the week before the government.

Coveney should not resign over Zappone controversy, says Donnelly 

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has said that he does not think the Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney should resign over the Katherine Zappone appointment controversy.

Mr Coveney had made an error, “he got it wrong”, Mr Donnelly told RTÉ radio’s Today with Claire Byrne show.

When asked if the Taoiseach should “fire” Mr Coveney, Mr Donnelly said he could not “answer definitively” whether the Taoiseach had that authority. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins
When asked if the Taoiseach should “fire” Mr Coveney, Mr Donnelly said he could not “answer definitively” whether the Taoiseach had that authority. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

“He was genuine in his apology. It is right and proper that he has made himself available for questioning.” “People make mistakes, I believe his apology and his regret.” Mr Donnelly said he did not believe that the controversy was “humiliating” for the Taoiseach, who was “quite rightly frustrated” at the controversy. The Taoiseach was keen to focus on issues such as housing, the Winter Plan and healthcare.

The Minister denied that the working relationship between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael was difficult. There were always going to be some kinds of tensions as both parties had been on opposite sides of the house since the foundation of the State, but they were now working well together and with the Green Party in Cabinet. 

“A lot of good work is happening.” 

The two big issues that had emerged from the controversy were that the Taoiseach had not been informed in advance of the appointment and the process itself. There had been an apology that what had happened was not right and that had been made in good faith, he said.

The appointment had not gone through the usual channels, he acknowledged and the Taoiseach should have been involved and notified. There needed to be transparency over what had occurred, he said. For most public service appointments there was a transparent process with a clear paper trail.

When asked if the Taoiseach should “fire” Mr Coveney, Mr Donnelly said he could not “answer definitively” whether the Taoiseach had that authority.

“This is a coalition, and in a coalition government one party does not tell another party who they can and can't have at the Cabinet table.”

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