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Spelling it out

'Is it definitely legal?' - Varadkar releases screengrabs of his texts with Zappone and Coveney

The Tánaiste and Katherine Zappone discussed the Merrion event over text, including whether it was “definitely legal”.

LAST UPDATE | Sep 1st 2021, 9:38 PM

KATHERINE ZAPPONE ASKED Leo Varadkar if he had “heard anything” about her prospective appointment as a UN Special Envoy while reminding him about her event at the Merrion Hotel.

Text messages between the Tánaiste and Katherine Zappone detail their conversations about the event, including whether it was “definitely legal”.

Meanwhile, texts between Varadkar and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney show that the Tánaiste texted the minister to ask if he “knew anything” about Zappone taking on the envoy role.

On 15 July, the Tánaiste texted the former Children’s Minister Zappone, who moved to New York after stepping down from politics, to remark that he heard she was in Dublin.

Zappone confirmed that she was and said: “Would of course love to see you and a reminder about my reception in Merrion on next Wed, 5.30-7pm on the Terrace.”

“If you can’t make that, we could find another time? Or to see you reception plus separate time,” she wrote, with an emoji face wearing sunglasses between “or” and “to”.

The following day on 16 July, Zappone texted Varadkar to ask: “I was expecting to hear from Simon C about my appointment as Special Envoy for Human Rights and Lgbtq+ issues. Have you heard anything?”

“If you around next Wed, hope to see you and Matt!”

Varadkar sent a series of short texts in response, saying: “Nope. Can make it to the Merrion. Is it definitely legal? Probably ok. Organised outdoor gathering of fewer than 200 people?”

Zappone said “yes, it is 50 people outdoors and The Merrion has confirmed it is compliant”, to which Varadkar said “see you then”. 


In a separate text conversation on 19 July, Varadkar texted Coveney: “Hi. Seeing Katherine Zappone on Wednesday. Do you know anything about her becoming our LGBT envoy?”

Coveney said “yeah, I spoke to Katherine tonight”.

He said she was meeting with Niall Burgess, general secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, that Wednesday to “finalise a 12 month contract to be an Irish Govt Special Envoy for ‘Freedom of Expression and Human Rights’ with a focus on LGBT”.

“She seems very happy. I plan to have it in a memo for Govt next week.”

On the day of the event, 21 July, Zappone texted Varadkar: “Just reminding you about reception this eve in the Merrion from 5.30 to 7pm – I will saw a few words at 6ish.”

She said she had met with management at the hotel to review Covid-19 protocols.

Varadkar replied: “Will be over. Might not be until a bit after 6 though. Where in Merrion is it?”

Zappone said: “Great! I will wait for you to speak, unless you get a lot delayed. On the Terrace – Just outside of main entrance.”

The release of the texts from Varadkar has come hours after Coveney, the Cabinet minister who spoke to Zappone about the role, said that he clears his phone on a regular basis because it has previously been hacked.

“I’ve been hacked and I’m Minister Foreign Affairs and Defence, so I think it is prudent that I clear my phone quite regularly,” Coveney told reporters earlier today.

Coveney appeared before an Oireachtas committee yesterday to face questions about the special envoy appointment, where he said that Zappone did not lobby him for the role.

In a statement today, a spokesperson for the Tánaiste said that Varadkar was “contacted by Ms Zappone on the 16th of July as she was visiting Dublin”.

“She mentioned that she could be taking up a new role as special envoy. The Tánaiste wasn’t aware of the appointment and contacted Simon Coveney about it for information as he knew he was likely to meet Ms Zappone later that week,” the spokesperson said.

“Minister Coveney confirmed that his Department had been in discussions with Katherine on the role and that a memo would be brought to cabinet prior to any appointment being made. The Tanaiste made no further inquiries about the matter,” they said.

The spokesperson said that Zappone and the Tánaiste discussed the role “briefly” on 21 July at the event in the Merrion Hotel.

“The full details of the appointment were not made available until the day of Cabinet the meeting on the 27th of July when Minister Coveney brought the proposal to the meeting,” they said.

“The Tánaiste has accepted that this should have been flagged by him to the Taoiseach and the Leader of the Green Party in advance at the Leaders meeting, the day before the cabinet meeting and an apology has been made. There should be no surprises in a coalition government.”

They said that Varadkar has no other texts between himself and Zappone or Coveney on the matter.

Katherine Zappone

In late July, former minister Katherine Zappone was appointed to a new role of UN Special Envoy for freedom of opinion and expression.

Ministers approved the appointment when Coveney brought a memo to a Cabinet meeting that followed discussions between him, Zappone, and his department.

The role had not been publicly advertised, leading to concerns about transparency and objectiveness around the appointment process.

A few days before her appointment, Zappone hosted an event at the Merrion Hotel in Dublin which came under scrutiny.

At the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence yesterday evening, Coveney said 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 EU.

Simon Coveney at Oireachtas Simon Coveney at the Oireachtas committee meeting

In February, Coveney asked his department’s secretary general whether Zappone could be of use, and Coveney later asked Zappone whether she would be interested in the UN special envoy role.

In relation to the event at the Merrion, Coveney told the committee he “did get a text telling me that it was on but I didn’t have a formal invitation or anything”.

Zappone ultimately said that she would not be accepting the role.


Speaking on RTÉ Radio One’s Drivetime after the release of the texts, Sinn Féin TD Pearse Doherty said that “the core of this here is that this was a made-up job paid out of the public purse and appointed by Fine Gael and we can see very clearly here that she reached out to the leader of Fine Gael asking ‘did you hear anything about my appointment’.”

Doherty said it was “the way politics should not be happening”.

He said it was unacceptable that the text messages had not previously been made available when they were requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) by journalists and members of the public.

“I myself looked for the text messages from Simon Coveney in an FOI on the 30th of July,” Doherty said.

“We’ve had journalists who’ve made requests looking for these texts, that have now been released by Leo Varadkar, through Freedom of Information [and were] responded back to to say that these texts do not exist despite the fact that the FOI officer had spoken directly with members of the Tánaiste’s staff.”

He said that ministers should be sending copies of messages dealing with governmnet business on personal phones to severs in their department to keep a record of the communication.

Fine Gael TD David Stanton said that Zappone was “famously Independent” and that she “fought for the rights of minorities in this country for a long long time”.

Stanton said he thought Zappone would have “done a great job” as UN Special Envoy for Freedom of Expression.

He rejected “any notion that this was a stitched-up job”.

In a statement, Sinn Féin spokesperson for foreign affairs John Brady called on Simon Coveney to appear before the Oireachtas committee again in light of the information in the text messages.

Brady, who was among the TDs to question the minister yesterday, has written to the chair of the committee to ask that Coveney be formally asked to return.

He suggested that Coveney’s account has “holes” – saying, for one, that Coveney “claimed that he ‘did not speak to her when she was in Dublin’. However, in a text message exchange from July 19th that the Tánaiste published this evening, Minister Coveney in fact confirmed to his party leader that he had spoken to Katherine Zappone that very night”.

Brady said the minister must “set the record straight”.

With reporting by Christina Finn

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