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Coveney received a text but not a 'formal invitation' to Zappone event at Merrion Hotel

The minister is facing scrutiny from an Oireachtas committee over Katherine Zappone’s appointment as a UN envoy.

Former Minister Katherine Zappone
Former Minister Katherine Zappone
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

Updated Aug 31st 2021, 6:07 PM

MINISTER SIMON COVENEY received a text about the event organised by Katherine Zappone at the Merrion Hotel the week of her appointment as a UN special envoy, but was not issued a “formal invitation”.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs has been facing scrutiny from an Oireachtas committee this evening over his recommendation to appoint Katherine Zappone as UN special envoy.

He said there were “genuine mistakes” made leading up to the Cabinet meeting where Katherine Zappone’s appointment as a UN special envoy was discussed.

In particular, Coveney said he regrets that the Taoiseach was not made aware of the situation ahead of the Cabinet meeting in July.

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

The memo was brought to the final meeting of Cabinet before the summer break by Minister Coveney and the appointment was ultimately approved by his Government colleagues.

Questions then arose around the transparency and objectiveness of the appointment process, as the role had not been publicly advertised.

Coveney made his opening remarks to the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence this evening, saying 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.

Responding to questions from the committee, Coveney said that he and Zappone had a good working relationship but that he “wouldn’t regard us as close friends per se”.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar was “not involved” in the discussions on Zappone’s appointment, Coveney said.

“Really the only time I briefed the Tánaiste in any detail was in advance of bringing this to Cabinet.”

“We didn’t have an actual proposal, a detailed proposal, until mid-summer anyway.”

Coveney said there were “genuine mistakes made in the build-up to the Cabinet meeting and I regret that”.

“We should never have a situation in a government meeting where the Taoiseach learns something for the first time and that is what happened on the 27th of July,” he said. “I’m sorry about that and I apologise to the Taoiseach for it.”

“I didn’t see it as a particularly big deal, I have to say. Clearly, many others do see it as a very big deal. It didn’t come up in the briefings between the party leaders and their teams. It should have and it didn’t.

“There wasn’t a big deal made about it, we moved on, the appointment was approved.”

After the revelation that Zappone had organised a 50-person gathering at the Merrion Hotel six days prior to her appointment, which the Tánaiste Leo Varadkar attended, further scrutiny and questions were asked at the time of her appointment and suitability.

Zappone released a statement in which she said she had checked with the hotel beforehand whether the event complied with Covid-19 guidelines.

This evening, Coveney said that he “did get a text telling me that it was on but I didn’t have a formal invitation or anything”, but then said he “didn’t even know it was taking place”.

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“I had no interest in going, I didn’t respond to it, and I wasn’t in the country. I had no connection or knowledge or interest, to be honest with you, in that event, and didn’t even know it was taking place afterwards.”

The controversy led the Government to clarify Covid-19 guideline rules around outdoor gatherings, though the Tánaiste said the event was within the regulations and “probably” within the guidelines. The Government said advice from the Attorney General also suggested the event was allowed.

Zappone subsequently said that she would not be accepting the role as UN Special Envoy.

It’s not yet clear whether the Government intends to fill that role. 

Additional reporting by Lauren Boland and Christina Finn

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