Daniel McConnell: Zappone appointment eroding trust in Government

Katherine Zappone has been appointed to the role of Special Envoy for Freedom of Expression, a move which has angered the public and Government TDs
Daniel McConnell: Zappone appointment eroding trust in Government

Former children's minister Katherine Zappone.

From time to time, issues come along in politics which annoy the hell out of the general public.

You realise this by the volume of texts you get to your phone after the story is broken and by the level of engagement on social media.

The Katherine Zappone story this week is one such example.

From the moment the Irish Examiner revealed her appointment as special envoy for freedom of expression, a vocal discussion has ensued.

To be frank, it has annoyed the hell out of a lot of people and has done the Government’s standing, and that of Taoiseach Micheál Martin, some damage.

Attempts by Mr Martin yesterday to downplay the appointment row were about as convincing as his authority over his Government.

Not for the first time, he was given poor and shoddy notice of an intended appointment by his Fine Gael Cabinet colleagues. Echoes of the highly dubious appointment of Seamus Woulfe to the Supreme Court a year ago are ringing loudly in our ears.

So, it now transpires that Ms Zappone, the former TD for Dublin South-West and Minister for Children, lobbied her former Cabinet colleague Simon Coveney for this paid gig, worth an estimated €15,000 a year.

Simon Coveney, Katherine Zappone and Enda  Kenny in 2016. Picture: Gareth Chaney Collins
Simon Coveney, Katherine Zappone and Enda  Kenny in 2016. Picture: Gareth Chaney Collins

Mr Coveney then approached his party leader, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, who approved of the matter and it was agreed that it should go to Cabinet on Tuesday for full approval.

Now, what normally happens is that the names of those being proposed are shared at advisor level, and Mr Martin should have been informed of the proposed name by Mr Varadkar at their leaders’ meeting on Monday.

While the Cabinet memorandum did include mention of the position of special envoy on freedom of expression, what it did not include was Ms Zappone’s name.

So, at Cabinet on Tuesday, when Mr Coveney revealed the name, the Taoiseach had been left “blindsided” and was, according to sources, “not best pleased” as we revealed yesterday.

Mr Martin openly asked Mr Coveney about the merits of the envoy role and whether it was appropriate.

There was no detailed discussion as to pay or the upward impact the two-year role would have on Ms Zappone’s ministerial pension.

Crucially, despite his concern, Mr Martin did not object strongly enough and nor did he, reject the appointment and push it back for another day, which he was entitled to do.

At the Botanic Gardens yesterday, he sought to chart a middle course of giving Mr Coveney a gentle wrap on the knuckles, but at the same time lauding Ms Zappone’s pedigree.

He said it was an “oversight” from Mr Coveney not to inform him in advance, but it was “time to move on”.

Taoiseach Micheal Martin at the launch of 'Creating our Future' at the National Botantic Gardens. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Taoiseach Micheal Martin at the launch of 'Creating our Future' at the National Botantic Gardens. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

This middle ground was described by some of Mr Martin’s own TDs as weak. They have argued that he either should have backed it to the hilt and own the issue, or blocked it outright.

By trying to absolve himself from it while allowing it to proceed comes off as duplicitous and feeble, they have said.

Yet despite besting the Taoiseach on this matter, all is not well either within Fine Gael.

A succession of TDs, senators, and councillors have made it known as to their deep unhappiness at the appointment.

Many see Ms Zappone as playing a role in the demise of Enda Kenny, and to see her elevated to a paid position, on the appearance of simply asking for the role, is causing a considerable amount of angst internally.

Mr Varadkar and Mr Coveney can count their lucky stars that the Dáil is in recess and there was no parliamentary party meeting this week. They would have been hammered.

For his part, Mr Varadkar issued a kind of mea culpa on the issue, accepting the Taoiseach should have been informed.

He said that there was a procedure whereby the names of such appointments were flagged during Cabinet meetings, but in this case that had not happened. He acknowledged that he or Mr Coveney should have informed the Taoiseach of the appointment, but that had not happened.

He dismissed as “nonsense” the suggestion that the appointment of Ms Zappone as UN special envoy was “cronyism”. There had been 46 items on the agenda at that meeting “of much greater importance” which was why the matter had fallen through, he said.

He said he understood that Ms Zappone had approached Mr Coveney about the position as she was now based in New York. She was one of the most qualified people for the job, he said.

Yes, the amount of money involved is small, but it stinks. A former Cabinet minister lobbies for a gig, gets it, will get paid, will be entitled to travel and hotel trips and will also have access to a staff in her duties.

Not for the first time, Mr Martin is now, because of his failure to stamp his authority over his Cabinet, under fire for a mess not of his making.

Also, Mr Martin and Eamon Ryan also have left a golden opportunity to exercise leverage over Fine Gael go past them.

The bottom line is that Fine Gael, for the second time, have rammed an appointment through in an unseemly fashion, and while they have rejected accusations of cronyism, it is hard to escape that conclusion.

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