Fergus Finlay: Ireland deserves better from arrogant Government ministers

The recent mess surrounding the Merrion Hotel party and Katherine Zappone's appointment and subsequent pulling out of the role of "special envoy on freedom of opinion and expression” to the UN, shows that the first rule of politics has to be that if you don’t want to get caught doing it, don’t do it in the first place
Fergus Finlay: Ireland deserves better from arrogant Government ministers

Katherine Zappone never gave a single interview about the controversies over her appointment or her Merrion Hotel party. Picture: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

I CONFESS to some conflicted feelings right at the start of this piece.

I wanted Katherine Zappone to succeed as the children’s minister and did my best to support her. I had huge regard and respect for her work in the marriage equality referendum. We were both heavily involved in the advisory group that assisted in that campaign, and I often sat beside her at meetings.

I was also a huge admirer of Anne Louise Gilligan, her late wife. Indeed, I would never have gone to work for Barnardos if she hadn’t been on the small group that recommended me for that job.

I didn’t have much contact with her after that, but I enormously admired her intellect, her gentleness of character, and her commitment to equality.

So, to be honest, I don’t find it all that easy to say how much disappointment and disillusion I feel at Katherine’s behaviour and attitude. But I don’t know what other reaction is possible. The smell of entitlement and arrogance, not to mention sheer incompetence, has been stunning, and no senior member of the Government remains untarnished by it.

On July 18, I heard Katherine tell Miriam O’Callaghan on the radio that she would probably live in the US for the rest of her life. She’d visit Ireland, of course, but she had put her house on the market and was severing her connections with her adopted country. (The house is indeed on the market, with lots of promotional material about the work done by Dermot Bannon to modernise it, and an asking price of €750,000.)

She wasn’t asked hard questions in that interview and, as far as I know, it was the last interview she gave. She certainly didn’t mention that she was in conversation with senior ministers about work she might do for Ireland in the US. I wonder what kind of an interview it would have been if Miriam knew then what she knows know.

Then suddenly it was announced, unknown to most of the Cabinet, that she was to be appointed as “special envoy on freedom of opinion and expression” to the UN. No advertisement, no competition, no interview. She wanted it, and she got it.

Simon Coveney did a bad-tempered interview (out of character, I’d say) in which he insisted in highly indignant tones that it was not a “makey-up” job.

But it is. There is a Human Rights Council as part of the United Nations. Membership rotates, and Ireland hasn’t sat on the council since 2015. Every member of that council, including its president, is a serving diplomat, usually the permanent representative of their country to the UN.

Ireland has a permanent representative to the UN, Geraldine Byrne Nason, a highly distinguished and senior diplomat. She currently occupies Ireland’s seat on the UN Security Council.

Ireland takes its UN commitments, and especially our commitment to human rights, seriously, and always has. You can see on the Department of Foreign Affairs website, for example, that we are among the top 10 financial contributors to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Ms Byrne Nason spent two years chairing the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women.

The work is being done professionally and being taken seriously. I would bet a week’s wages that no position paper emerged from the Department of Foreign Affairs stressing the need for this appointment — and certainly no case was put forward arguing for an external appointment without any process around it. It’s not the way that department works.

I don’t know what salary was attached to the position. A daily rate, no doubt, and expenses. Probably modest enough. But there’d be the status — buckets of status for a retired politician who wouldn’t exactly be a household name in New York City. Ireland’s representative would find glamorous doors opening all over the place.

However, she had no right to ask and no right to assume entitlement to the job. 

If it was needed, there should have been a competition for it. We have a large number of men and women in Ireland who would have made excellent candidates. If she was the best, the competition would have established that.

The proof of her sense of entitlement, sadly, lies in the fact that she never gave a single interview about the controversy. This was compounded by the fact that, when the next controversy arose — about her party in the grounds of the Merrion Hotel — all she could do was issue a terse one-liner telling the media to contact the hotel.

Did her party comply with the guidelines? You’d have to be there to know. (I wasn’t.) If everyone sat at a table of six, if there was no table-hopping or walking around, if everyone wore a mask at all times except when they were sitting at their tables, then maybe it did.

However, should it have happened, and should Leo Varadkar, Ivana Bacik, and other leaders of public opinion have been there? No, they should not. No one taking public health guidelines seriously — especially those in a leadership position — should have taken part. The Tánaiste has — belatedly — admitted as much.

Which brings me to the final bit of this distasteful episode — and not just the lack of accountability, but the brazen unwillingness to be held to account.

Not a single member of Government was to be heard on the public airwaves for days to discuss the affair or explain the hurried moves to bring the public health guidelines into happy alignment with the Attorney General’s (AG) friendly interpretation of the law.

Don’t get me wrong — I’ve often argued in the past that the AG’s advice ought to be published much more frequently.

As things stand though, the rule has always been that the AG’s advice is confidential to the Government. It’s seen as a fundamental part of the accepted definition of Cabinet confidentiality.

I’ve always thought that was a bit precious, and not always wise, but it never occurred to me that the only time the AG’s advice would be published so easily was to save a Tánaiste’s blushes. That comes very close to politicising a constitutional office, and it certainly creates a precedent that future governments won’t welcome.

The first rule of politics needs to be that if you don’t want to get caught doing it, don’t do it in the first place.

Sadly, the other rule appears to be that there are some in politics who cannot resist the opportunity to pull a stroke — especially when it comes to looking after themselves.

At the end of the day, the Zappone affair will be remembered as something grubby that reflected very poorly on the people involved.

Perhaps the more important thing is what the whole episode tells us.

We have a Government that has done some of the big things really well, especially in relation to the pandemic. However, its ability to make an unholy mess of the small things, especially while showing arrogance in the process, is an awful lot less than the people of Ireland deserve.

The first rule of politics needs to be that if you don’t want to get caught doing it, don’t do it in the first place.

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