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Katherine Zappone says she will not accept UN envoy role after days of mounting political pressure

Today’s reports of a 50-person event led to increased pressure over Zappone’s appointment as a UN envoy.

Dr Katherine Zappone during her time as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs.
Dr Katherine Zappone during her time as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs.
Image: Leah Farrell

Updated Aug 4th 2021, 5:46 PM

FORMER MINISTER KATHERINE Zappone has declined the position of UN special envoy for freedom of opinion and expression, after coming under increasing political pressure about the appointment process.

Opposition and Government TDs have raised concerns in the week since Zappone was selected for the role of UN special envoy about the appointment process, with concerns raised about cronyism and an unfair process.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney have apologised to the Taoiseach for not informing him of Zappone’s selection before it was announced at Cabinet last week; Taoiseach Micheál Martin then said in response: “We move on.”

Zappone served as Children and Youth Affairs Minister in the Fine Gael-led government formed in 2016 under Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Fine Gael TD and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney offered Zappone the role without opening it up for applications; Coveney defended this as being a “perfectly normal” way to appoint special envoys.

Today, the Irish Independent reported that six days before her appointment, Zappone held a gathering of 50 people at the Merrion Hotel, which is located across the road from Government Buildings, which the Tánaiste Leo Varadkar attended.

This evening Varadkar released a statement to say that he was present for 45 minutes, and that the guidelines will be updated so that people have clarity around what is allowed.

Some opposition TDs had raised questions whether the gathering was within Covid guidelines, but the hotel has insisted that everything was above board and Zappone herself said in a statement earlier that she had been assured by the hotel that public health guidelines were being followed.

The publication of the story increased the focus on Zappone’s appointment as UN special envoy, and she released a statement hours later saying that she would decline the role.

In a statement released this afternoon, Zappone said that it was clear that criticism of the appointment process “has impacted the legitimacy of the role itself”.

It is my conviction that a Special Envoy role can only be of real value to Ireland and to the global community if the appointment is acceptable to all parties.

“For this reason, I have decided not to accept this appointment, and I have communicated my decision to the Minister for Foreign Affairs,” she said.

A statement from Minister Simon Coveney responding to Zappone’s announcement said: “I understand her decision and thank her for being willing to work on Ireland’s human rights priorities.

“For my part, I accept that mistakes were made in how this appointment was brought to government and lessons will be learnt from that.”

The Merrion gathering

Merrion Hotel 002 The Merrion Hotel in Dublin Source: Sam Boal

Earlier today, Zappone had said she was “assured” by the Merrion Hotel that the event she recently organised was in compliance with Covid-19 restrictions after it emerged she had hosted 50 people, including the Tánaiste, at the five-star hotel. 

“Please contact the Merrion Hotel for their statement regarding compliance with government Covid-19 restrictions and guidelines for my private event,” Zappone said in a statement to RTÉ News this morning. 

Zappone added that “Prior to organising the event I inquired, and was assured by the Merrion Hotel, that the event would be in compliance with Government Covid-19 restrictions and guidelines.”

The Tánaiste released a statement this evening, after Zappone declined the role, to say that he had also checked with the hotel before attending the event.

“I confirmed in advance directly with [Zappone], and with the hotel management on arrival, that the event was compliant with Covid regulations. I was present for about 45 minutes, spoke to Dr Zappone briefly and listened to her speech before returning to work. The event took place entirely outdoors.

“I always strive to adhere to Covid restrictions and as a public representative I try to be extra careful in that regard.

What were the Government rules at the time?

The Tánaiste, Zappone, the Merrion Hotel, and the Attorney General have all insisted that the event held on 21 July was compliant with Covid-19 rules at the time.

The Tánaiste said this evening: “Government regulations permit organised outdoor gatherings and events of up to 200 people. There were about 50 people present. The definition in the regulations includes social events as well as recreational, exercise, cultural, entertainment or community events.

“I am confident these regulations were not breached. This matter has been checked with the Attorney General.”

This evening, the Government Press Office said that the Attorney General had advised that “regulations provide for organised outdoor events and gatherings up to 200 people, including social, recreational, exercise, cultural, entertainment or community events”.

The statement then listed the regulations in question.

The Tánaiste said:

As the Government statement has already said, further updates will be made to the guidelines to ensure that people have clarity about how future organised outdoor events may operate.

Newly elected Dublin Bay South TD Ivana Bacik also confirmed to the Irish Independent that she was in attendance at the Merrion Hotel event for 15-20 minutes.

The Merrion Hotel has said in a statement that it was in compliance with all guidelines in affect at the time.

The hotel said: “At all times since the start of the pandemic, The Merrion Hotel has adhered to Government public health measures including the relevant guidelines that were in place at the time of the event on July 21st.

“Regulations in place at that time, as published on Gov.ie, allowed for outdoor events of up to 200 people.

In relation to hotel guidelines published by Fáilte Ireland, there have been significant changes to these since the event on 21st July – the version of the Guidelines that were in place at that time made no reference to outdoor organised events.

The current Fáilte Ireland guidelines state that organised events at hotels and guesthouses are not permitted – however, up to 200 people have been allowed attend outdoor events since early July. 

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Criticism from opposition and Government TDs

Since news of the appointment was revealed last week the issue has caused considerable controversy, with former Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan saying the issue should be discussed by an Oireachtas committee.

Social Democrat TD Gary Gannon last week wrote to Flanagan, who chairs the Oireachtas Foreign Affairs Committee, to request that the committee examine the appointment of Zappone.

This morning, Sinn Féin TD Matt Carthy said the role was “a made-up position” and that the event held by Zappone was “at best questionable” from a public health point of view. 

He said there needs to be transparency around the event. 

There needs to be accountability, the Tánaiste needs to be up front in terms of the event he was at, who else was at it, in what context did he attend and what influence did that have in relation to [Zappone's] subsequent appointment. 

Speaking to Newstalk Breakfast today, Fine Gael TD for Cork North Central Colm Burke, said he’s “not sure” where there would have been a breach of guidelines with such an event.

“My understanding is that it was an outdoor event and Leo Varadkar checked with the hotel [that the event was in line with Government Covid-19 guidelines].” 

The Journal has sought confirmation from the Department on whether the role will still be filled.

About the author:

Cónal Thomas & Gráinne Ní Aodha

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