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Top civil servant declines to answer questions about Cabinet leaks during 'mischievous' committee

The Secretary General at the Department of An Taoiseach was appearing before an Oireachtas Committee.

Martin Fraser at this evening's committee.
Martin Fraser at this evening's committee.

THE SECRETARY GENERAL at the Department of the Taoiseach has said he “is not optimistic” of identifying who leaked details from the Mother and Baby Homes report before it was published earlier this year.

Martin Fraser was appearing at the Oireachtas Foreign Affairs Committee to answer questions about the aborted appointment of Katherine Zappone to a UN special envoy role.

During the course of the meeting, Fraser was asked on a number of occasions about the practice of leaking from Cabinet. This was despite efforts by committee chair and Fine Gael TD Charlie Flanagan to prevent that line of questioning.

During some tense exchanges with Sinn Féin TD John Brady, Fraser was asked by the Wicklow deputy whether “one of the most disturbing aspects” to the Zappone controversy was “‘the breach of Cabinet confidentiality”.

Brady asked Fraser whether he thinks “this government has a problem with leaking” and also whether Fraser had been “asked to try and establish” how the Zappone nomination made its way into the public domain.

In response, Fraser said he is “a civil servant” and “doesn’t want to get into commenting on this government or that government”.

Fraser said he had not been asked to investigate the Zappone leak but that the questions being asked at the committee “were not the reason I was asked to attend this meeting”. 

Flanagan intervened to say that Brady was being “politically mischievous” and that the committee has “no role” in identifying issues around leaking.

“That is beyond the remit of this committee,” Flanagan said. 

In January of this year, Cabinet tasked Fraser with examining the leaking of details from the Mother and Baby Homes report. 

Asked about this by Brady today, Fraser said he did investigate that leak but that he was not able to identify the source. 

“To be honest with you, I wish people wouldn’t leak from Cabinet, of course I do. However, I was asked to investigate that, I haven’t been able to find out who did. I’m not optimistic,” Fraser said. 

flan Committee chairperson Charlie Flanagan. Source: Oireachtas.ie

Zappone memo

Fraser’s appearance at the meeting was to establish when his office was informed of Zappone’s nomination to the UN role before the Cabinet meeting on Tuesday 27 July

Zappone had been offered a role as Ireland’s UN special envoy for freedom of expression, but subsequently withdrew from consideration after it emerged that Taoiseach Micheál Martin had not been made aware of her nomination before it was brought to Cabinet. 

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney later apologised for the manner of Zappone’s appointment and expressed regret that the Taoiseach was not informed of the matter before it was brought to Cabinet.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said that, in future, all special envoy positions should be filled through an open competition.

Asked today about the timeline of when he was aware of Zappone’s nomination, Fraser said a memo was prepared the Friday before Cabinet saying that Coveney was to seek approval for special envoy deployments but that there were ‘no names’ on that memo.

On the following Tuesday, “names were distributed to members of the Cabinet”, Fraser said.

There’s two versions of this memo. The first version was sent out on Friday and it makes clear to members of the government, it goes to everybody, that the minister was going to propose appointments of ambassadors and special envoy, but there’s no names on that memo on Friday. 

He added: “Then what happens is that the final version of that memo was brought to the Cabinet by the Minister for Foreign on the Tuesday, which is exactly the correct procedure. It was circulated to the members of the government on the Tuesday morning.”

Fraser said the final memo had been sent to him on the Monday evening. 

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Social Democrats TD Gary Gannon sought to ask Fraser about “the culture in which these special envoys or these top level positions are allocated”. 

In asking this, Gannon mentioned that Fraser has been chosen as Ireland’s next Ambassador to the United Kingdom.

“When did you know exactly that Katherine Zappone was going to be appointed as a UN envoy, did you know before they got the memo?,” Gannon said. 

In response, Fraser said he didn’t know for sure 

The answer to that is I don’t know. It’s possible it was mentioned to me, I genuinely don’t know. The first time I knew for certain was on the night that I got that memorandum.

“It really wasn’t something I was dealing with,” he added. 

Former children’s minister Zappone has turned down an invitation to attend the committee to answer questions.

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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