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Larry Donnelly: Katherine Zappone will provide value for money as special envoy

Our columnist muses on the Zappone furore, summer days and what’s next for Donald Trump.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

AS EVER – AND in 2021 with numerous days of actually warm weather which some people bizarrely complained about – July passed by in a blur. The following are reflections on the political and personal happenings that have occupied my mind during these lazy, hazy days.

The recent announcement by the Government that the former Minister for Children, Katherine Zappone, is to become a special envoy for freedom of expression has engendered a great deal of questioning and criticism.

The Taoiseach was apparently “blindsided” by the move which seems to have emanated from the Minister for Foreign Affairs after he was approached initially by Zappone herself. The optics around it are undeniably bad. The process, or lack thereof, through which the ex-politician was given this short-term post has been assailed. It pays in the vicinity of €15,000 per annum, plus expenses.

I was surprised by the extent of the outrage it triggered. Zappone is an exceptional advocate with a compelling life story. She has dedicated much of her life to human rights campaigning. Now resident in New York, where the United Nations is headquartered, she is ideally situated to play a role and be an efficacious voice on important topics at a time when freedoms are under threat. That Ireland is taking a lead in this regard should be welcomed.

When I put forward my opinion on Twitter and subsequently on Newstalk, however, the blowback was extraordinary. A lot of the coverage and commentary has suggested that this is another example of cronyism.

In defence of the Government’s decision, Leo Varadkar made the crucial point that there would not have been a murmur in the media if the new envoy were a retired civil servant with relevant expertise. But because Zappone held elected office, many people think her being chosen to fill any public sector position is inherently corrupt.

KATHERINE ZAPPONE 758A0145 Dr Katherine Zappone (file photo) Source: Eamonn Farrell

I thoroughly disagree with this widespread notion. While there is certainly an issue relating to the how of this appointment and lessons to be learned therefrom, the reality is that Katherine Zappone will provide value for money as special envoy. For me, that’s the bottom line.

And those who allege that this assignment is “makey uppy” would do well to consider that international engagement is vital, particularly for a small country like Ireland that has the most to lose from the inward-facing pivots of the United Kingdom and United States.

What’s next for Trump?

Stateside, one of the big political stories of late has been the loss of a Donald Trump-endorsed congressional candidate in Texas. Jake Ellzey, a conservative state legislator, defeated fellow Republican Susan Wright.

Wright had been praised by Trump and whose bid was part-financed by his political action committee, in a run-off for a seat that became open when Wright’s husband passed away from Covid-19 complications. Trump’s foes of all stripes have sought to paint it as a signal that his influence is declining and that he is no longer the “kingmaker” he claims to be.

It would be a mistake to see this single result as the harbinger of a sea change. Ellzey garnered the support of powerful Trump allies in the Lone Star State. And it is extremely doubtful that he will consort with the small band of GOP dissidents in the US House of Representatives.

But it probably will mean that Trump will be more judicious about lending his vocal backing to candidates and, when he does communicate a preference, he will have to work harder on their behalf. A Republican primary this Tuesday for a House seat in Ohio, in which Trump has declared a favourite, will be interesting to watch on this front.

The overarching truth is that – with respect to the 2022 midterm elections and the jockeying to be the party’s nominee in the quest to recapture the White House in 2024 – Republican eyes remain firmly, perhaps warily, fixed on Donald Trump. His status may have diminished, but he hasn’t gone away, despite the fervent hopes of his critics in the US and around the globe.

Getting back to some version of normality

Although the increase in coronavirus cases occasioned by the Delta variant is justifiably a cause of concern, receiving my second dose of the Pfizer vaccine in mid-July felt in some ways as if a line was being drawn under the scourge – rightly or wrongly. Enjoying a few pints and some food indoors had a similar effect.

Additionally from my perspective, it is simultaneously daunting and exciting to anticipate an academic year that, no matter what its precise contours, should be more akin to business as usual than teaching and learning remotely on screens. There will be challenging for both academics and students in a climate that will definitely be different to what we knew before, yet I am confident that we will rise to them.

Cognisant that public health is the top priority and operating accordingly, it will be wonderful for third-level students to actually be on campuses again and to have the same uniquely transformative experiences as those of us who preceded them did. And speaking selfishly, there is nothing like the buzz of teaching and interacting with students in a lecture theatre or seminar room. I can’t wait to have it back.

In sum, and at the risk of jumping the proverbial gun, it feels good to be nearing a return to normal, even if it is a new normal.

The one redeeming feature of the pandemic for me has been the amount of time I have been able to spend with my son. Instead of being on the opposite coast of the country for at least half of each week, we have been together almost every day – a virtually inseparable duo. Larry Óg is only eight, so he mightn’t recollect it fully. But I know I will always remember the things we have shared with enormous joy and fondness.

Walks home from school. Countless soccer games out on the road. Stunning evenings strolling the fairways (and searching the rough!) of the beautiful Wicklow Golf Club. A family sojourn in Connemara. Lovely lunches outdoors. A fantastic first 35 minutes and a devastating second 35 on a gorgeous Sunday in the Hogan Stand as our beloved Galway footballers started impressively then faded meekly against the old enemy in a geographically displaced Connacht Final at Croke Park. All equally unforgettable.

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So yes, July went by fast. But life in general, especially what makes it magical, is going by too fast. I really wish there was a pause button.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with The Journal.

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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