Daniel McConnell: The Zappone debacle is another example of FG rewarding political failure

Former minister's record is not as stellar as some say, and her special envoy position deserves a better appointment process
Daniel McConnell: The Zappone debacle is another example of FG rewarding political failure

Last June, outgoing children’s minister Katherine Zappone — she had stayed on in office having lost at the general election — celebrated the news that Ireland had secured a seat on the UN Security Council with then taoiseach Leo Varadkar and then tánaiste Simon Coveney. Picture: Julien Behal 

Some nonsense has been spouted this week about Katherine Zappone, the former children’s minister.

She is a very nice person, a warm, engaging character, and someone who bore personal tragedy with dignity while at the Cabinet table.

However, she was at best a divisive minister and, at worst, could be accused of being a terrible one.

Some successes amid a litany of lapses

She left her successor, Roderic O’Gorman, with an enormous mess to fix on leaving office, most notably in relation to the mother and baby homes scandal.

As children’s minister, she was criticised after it emerged she knew of concerns about the standard of care at a Dublin creche a year before they were highlighted in a television programme in 2019.

In 2019, Zappone and her department were severely criticised for handing back almost €60m in State funding when 6,000 children were not allocated a social worker.

Her handling of the Scouting Ireland issue and withholding State funds until reforms happened showed backbone — and she points to her establishment of a national childcare scheme as a crowning achievement.

Strokes of luck

However, the descriptions from senior government ministers of her being an “international leader” in human rights are laughable.

Zappone arrived on the national political stage in 2011 when new taoiseach Enda Kenny surprised many by appointing a number of non-politicians as his nominees to the Seanad.

Her first stroke of luck.

By then she was a former chief executive of the National Women’s Council of Ireland and was the first openly lesbian member of the Oireachtas, and the first in a same-sex marriage, as described by the Nealon’s Guide published after her appointment.

The native of Spokane, Washington, Zappone had moved to Ireland to live with her wife, Ann Louise Gilligan, and the pair became advocates for the rights of same-sex couples to marry.

Their crowning glory, of course, was the passage of the 2015 marriage equality referendum. Buoyed by that momentum, Zappone stood for the Dáil in the 2016 general election and succeeded in taking the last seat in the Dublin South-West constituency.

The Independent minister

After Kenny’s significant reversal in terms of Fine Gael seats, from 76 in 2011 to 50 in 2016, Zappone got her second stroke of luck. 

She found herself among a group of Independent TDs who were courted by Kenny in his bid to cling to power. 

Then children's minister Katherine Zappone and then social protection minister Leo Varadkar in April, 2017. Picture: Gareth Chaney
Then children's minister Katherine Zappone and then social protection minister Leo Varadkar in April, 2017. Picture: Gareth Chaney

Zappone, catching many on the hop, was the first to sign up to Kenny’s advances, thus securing a full senior cabinet post in the subsequent government. It was incredible.

Whether lucky or cunning, Zappone had moved from the fringes of society as a campaigner to the heart of Irish politics in just five years. 

It was another episode of guile from Zappone which ultimately fired the trigger for Kenny’s eventual departure from office in 2017.

Her part in Enda's downfall 

After he invented a conversation between them that never happened, during a radio interview about the ongoing mistreatment of Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe, Zappone forced Kenny to correct the record and issue, as he called it, a mea culpa.

An already weakened Kenny was done and many in Fine Gael have not forgotten her role in his downfall, hence their fury this week. 

Whatever her relationship with Kenny, she was certainly closer to Kenny’s successor as taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, and she saw out the remainder of her term amid mounting criticism of her performance.

On Matt Cooper’s Last Word, Shane Ross, her former colleague at cabinet, described his “disappointment at Katherine’s failure” to stand with him and Finian McGrath against Fine Gael on seeking reform in how judges were appointed and other issues. She went native, essentially, was the charge.

When the country went to the polls again in 2020, Zappone was among many government figures to lose her seat, but suffered the indignity of having to remain on in office until a new administration was formed.

Exit to the US

Zappone, having suffered the loss of her wife and then her seat, left Ireland and relocated to New York, but was engaged by the Government to help with its bid to secure a seat on the United Nations Security Council.

It was during this period, if reports are to believed, Zappone mentioned to Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney that she would be interested in helping Ireland’s cause further if required.

Then housing minister Simon Coveney, then children's minister Katherine Zappone, and then taoiseach Enda Kenny launching the Rebuilding Ireland plan in September 2016. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins 
Then housing minister Simon Coveney, then children's minister Katherine Zappone, and then taoiseach Enda Kenny launching the Rebuilding Ireland plan in September 2016. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins 

Coveney has seemed to dismiss this conversation as any form of lobbying — but not realising you have been lobbied is perhaps part of the trick. 

From the moment the Irish Examiner revealed the appointment at Cabinet on Tuesday afternoon, a major political controversy erupted amid charges of cronyism.

It emerged quickly that Taoiseach Micheál Martin was not informed in advance of the proposed appointment. It turns out that Fine Gael ministers were in the loop ahead of Cabinet, but their Coalition colleagues were not, an admission which will do little to dispel the idea that this was a political stroke, particularly given, as Coveney admitted, he and his officials were considering this for months.

Coveney’s description of it being a “communications error” would be more tolerable and acceptable if it did not come in the wake of the shameless manner of the Séamus Woulfe appointment a year ago. 

That was a stroke of audacious proportions and Zappone’s appointment to this gig has some similarities. 

The whole process was the mistake

Coveney got extraordinarily prickly on radio with RTÉ’s Bryan Dobson yesterday when pressed about the lack of an open competition, suggesting that any questioning of Zappone was not appropriate.

He said the “genuine mistake” was not telling the Taoiseach — but, in truth, the genuine mistake was the entire process. 

Because, unlike many others, I would argue that Zappone’s record in government is not so stellar and we, as the paymasters, would have benefited from expressions of interest from other quarters.

A rather shameful attempt has repeatedly been made by Fine Gael to dismiss such concerns on the basis that it is a relatively small amount of money involved. The party’s TD for Dublin Mid-West, Emer Higgins, said on Virgin Media on Tuesday that people were “making a mountain out of a molehill”. 

The following morning on radio, her party leader, Leo Varadkar, sought to follow suit and say the Cabinet was dealing with far more important matters and that the money is paltry.

Complacency born of 10 years in office

The problem about all of this is one of complacency. It tends to happen when you are 10 years in office.

Fine Gael has always had a problem with losing touch when in government and this is merely the latest example. It also seems to have a disturbing habit of seeking to reward political failure.

Look to James Reilly, who was reappointed deputy leader even after losing his Dáil seat in 2016 and had to be appointed to the Seanad.

Look at Jerry Buttimer, who was made leader of the Seanad having lost his Dáil seat in 2016.

Look at Regina Doherty, who succeeded him having lost her seat in 2020.

The rewarding of Zappone, another political failure, is yet another self-inflicted own goal by Fine Gael which has handed yet another stick to Sinn Féin and other opposition parties with which to beat it.

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