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Zapponegate: Ex-Minister texted Coveney to say thanks for 'incredible opportunity' in March

111 documents released by Coveney’s department today shed more light on the timeline of the process.

Image: RollingNews.ie

THE DEPARTMENT OF FOREIGN Affairs has published 111 documents pertaining to the planned appointment of Katherine Zappone as a special envoy to the UN. 

They show that the former minister texted Simon Coveney to thank him for “this incredible opportunity” in early March, months before the Cabinet signed off on the part-time position in controversial circumstances in late July. 

The files were published by the department this afternoon following a series of Freedom of Information requests relating to the appointment of Zappone as a UN Special Envoy in July.

Coveney, the Foreign Affairs Minister, is due before an Oireachtas committee tomorrow where he is set to be further grilled by politicians who say they were unhappy with answers provided at an initial hearing last Tuesday. 

The former Children’s Minister and independent TD was to be appointed to a new role of Ireland’s Special Envoy to the UN for freedom of opinion and expression.

Coveney had brought a memo to a Cabinet meeting on 27 July following discussions between himself, Zappone, and his department officials about the appointment.

Last week, a sequence of events brought the story back to the spotlight once again after Coveney admitted that he had deleted text messages relating to Zappone’s appointment, which ultimately did not go ahead.

The Department of Foreign Affairs had promised to release all information it had on record pertaining to the process. 

The documents – including everything from email exchanges between different officials to short text messages between ministers and advisers – were released online this afternoon on the Department website. 

The documents can be viewed here

What’s in the documents about the appointment? 

The records include text messages between Coveney and Zappone stretching back to last winter, when the former TD was in the US campaigning for Joe Biden in the November election. 

The day after the election, on 5 November, Zappone texted Coveney saying “we [Democrats] are going to win today” and said she was “thinking of you” to which Coveney replied “it’s been a marathon but a good result in the end”.

Coveney remarked that the days after Trump’s defeat would be “very fractious with legal challenges and potential recounts but looks good for Biden win”. 

“Hope you’re well, stay in touch, Simon C,” he texted Zappone. 

1_kz

On 22 February, Zappone texted Coveney again saying “I know Paschal has spoken to you about my interest to get an intro to Sam Power”.

Samantha Power is an Irish-American academic, diplomat and government official who is currently serving as the Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Zappone said she hoped to possibly work with Power on womens, gender equality and LGBTQ issues.

“Biden has promised to appoint LGBT folks to high level positions at federal agencies,” Zappone texted Coveney, adding that “all these efforts [are] very much in synch with our/Irish foreign policy too.”

“I look forward to hearing from you, warm regards, Katherine.”

In a statement this evening Paschal Donohoe, the Finance Minister, released a brief statement in response to his name being mentioned in the document dump:

“At the end of last year Katherine sought my advice regarding a future in the UN and other international organisations. I suggested she contact Minister Coveney for advice. At some point in the New Year I mentioned this potential contact to Minister Coveney. I had no further engagement with Minister Coveney on the matter.”

On 26 February, Zappone texted Coveney thanking him for “the call” saying that she “knew well what’s going on with women/girls, diversity, gender, and LGBTQ issues within UN context”. 

“Anything else you need from me, let me know,” Zappone said. “Thanks very much Simon.”

On 4 March, Zappone texted Coveney:

Hi Simon, thank you so, so much for offering me this incredible opportunity.

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Five days later on the 9 March, Zappone texted Coveney:

“It will be such a privilege and I will be so proud to serve Ireland again. I think the time is really ripe for change too,” she said. 

“Could you let me know time period appointment is for, and what are next steps.”

“Thank you again so much Simon – especially when you have so much on your plate. I spoke with Paschal too yesterday, warm regards, Katherine.”

“Simon, see you have a lot on your plate as always…Have heard in the background that Department may be ready to discuss proposals with you for my work? Look forward to hearing from you, K.”

On 4 May, Zappone texted Coveney again asking if there was “any news yet?”

“You had mentioned June as a start date,” said Zappone. 

On 19 July, days before the UN Special Envoy role was brought to Cabinet, Zappone texted Coveney saying she had a “long chat” with the Department’s secretary general Niall Burgess and that they were to meet later that week “to hammer things out”. 

Two days later, Zappone texted Coveney again saying herself and Burgess had a “productive meeting” and that it had been agreed that two years would be a realistic timeframe for the duration of the envoy role. 

“Thank you again for this privilege and opportunity,” said Zappone. 

On 27 July, the day after the news broke that Zappone would be appointed to the envoy role (and that the Taoiseach had been ‘blindsided’ by the appointment) she texted Coveney saying: 

“Thank you Minister.

“I shall serve you and our beloved country, to the best of my ability.

“Warmest, Katherine.”

Timeline 

The documents appear to largely tally with the timeline of the process given by Coveney to the Oireachtas Foreign Affairs Committee last week - however the springtime messages thanking him for the role are likely to prompt fresh questions at tomorrow’s hearing. 

He said last Tuesday that Zappone reached out to him last summer after she stepped down from politics to say that she would be available to help in any way with Ireland’s work with the UN.

After the former minister left Irish politics and moved to New York, the pair “spoke now and again as former colleagues do”, Coveney told the committee.

“In February of this year we spoke and Katherine Zappone told me of work she was doing in the UN system. At no point in that conversation did I consider that she was lobbying me for a job,” Coveney outlined.

“Following on from that conversation, however, I reflected on the fact that Katherine Zappone was a former Irish minister, had been heavily involved in our Security Council campaign, had campaigned all her life on issues of equality and was now living in New York.”

Later in February on the 24th, Coveney met with the department’s Secretary General to “review our first months on the Security Council”.

“At the end of that meeting I asked him for his view on whether Katherine Zappone could be of any use to our team in New York. He told me he would reflect on it.”

Coveney said that there is “significant push back against the very definition of human rights by certain States” internationally and that officials in his department recommended a role with a “broad mandate” focussing on freedom of expression.

“I approached Katherine Zappone and asked if she’d be interested in taking this role in principle. She said she would and I handed the process back to my Secretary General,” Coveney told the committee.

“I was not involved at any point in discussions around terms and conditions, which isn’t unusual.”

Zappone was in line to earn €13,000-€15,000 before tax for 50 or 60 days’ work a year.

The Merrion-gate controversy 

While the appointment of Zappone to the part-time role was controversial from the off – prompting questions about the transparency of the process, Zappone, of course, came under further political pressure when news of an outdoor event she hosted at the Merrion Hotel came to light in early August.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar was among about 50 people in attendance at the function, although he later said he attended only briefly. Newly elected Labour TD Ivana Bacik also dropped by.

The government sought advice from Attorney General Paul Gallagher amid controversy over the number of guests at outdoor events, as the controversy dominated headlines.

As pressure around the appointment grew on 4 August – the day the Irish Independent ran its story about the gathering – the former Minister texted Coveney with a statement declining the role.

“Hi Simon,

“Good to talk yesterday and I have reflected further on our conversation. I now think it is best if I issue the following statement, in conjunction with communication from you or your department.

“I’m available to speak with you, if that suits. I’d like to get this out before 5pm today, if possible.

“Thanks again.”

In relation to the Merrion Hotel reception itself, Coveney had told the committee last week that he received a text about the event but said he was not issued a “formal invitation”. 

The texts from Zappone released this afternoon show she texted him about the reception on Friday 18 June

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“I know you may be in Cork by this date, but just know you are welcome and how much I appreciate our time together in Government.”

A PDF of an invitation was included, including the text: “PLEASE JOIN ME FOR A RECEPTION IN APPRECIATION OF YOUR SUPPORT DURING MY MINISTRY”

Coveney did not respond by text message, according to the records released today. 

7 KZ

Last week 

At that meeting of the committee last Tuesday, Coveney said that the texts that he deleted included exchanges with Zappone and Varadkar in relation to the role and the controversial event at the Merrion Hotel. 

Coveney initially said he cleared his phone to free up space, but later said that he clears his phone on a regular basis because it has previously been hacked. 

Several journalists had submitted FOI requests when the story first emerged for correspondence between Varadkar, Coveney and Zappone in relation to the Special Envoy role.

The text messages deleted by Coveney would have fallen under the scope of some of these requests.

The embattled minister is due before the committee again at 10am tomorrow. 

In a statement this afternoon he said:

“My Department has today brought forward the publication of all documentation on the appointment of a Special Envoy for Freedom of Opinion and Expression. The files show extensive consideration of the envoy position as well as a complete timeline ahead of tomorrow’s meeting of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence.”

He said he was eager to go through all the documentation with the committee tomorrow morning “and I will give a complete explanation of the timelines and decision-making process on bringing a recommendation to Government to establish this post”.

The significant detail set out in the files, he said, “shows the extent of work that took place within different units of my Department”.

“I am sorry that this appointment has caused such controversy for the Government. I have apologised to the Taoiseach for the failings on my part in relation to this issue and I have no hesitation in doing so again.

“Finally, a review of envoy positions is ongoing in the Department, however I agree with the Taoiseach’s call for all future appointments to be made by open public competition.”

- Reporting by Stephen McDermott, Cónal Thomas, Daragh Brophy, Christina Finn and Lauren Boland. 

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