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The Zappone Saga: How the controversy played out in the past week, and why she had to quit

It started with one tweet a week ago – and ended with an extraordinary intervention by the Attorney General.

Katherine Zappone announced yesterday that she had declined the position of UN special envoy for freedom of opinion and expression.
Katherine Zappone announced yesterday that she had declined the position of UN special envoy for freedom of opinion and expression.
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

AFTER MORE THAN a week of controversy Katherine Zappone announced yesterday that she will not take up the role of UN Special Envoy on Freedom of Opinion and Expression.

The saga prompted fresh advice on what gatherings are permitted under Covid-19 regulations and is set to be the focus of an Oireachtas hearing some time this year.

It unleashed a slew of criticism from opposition parties, representatives from industry groups and religious leaders.

It also saw a surprising intervention from the Attorney General, leading to the extraordinary situation yesterday evening where the Government appeared to decide that outdoor events of up to 200 people are actually allowed under the current guidelines. 

The entire saga laid bare the fault lines in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael’s already antagonistic coalition, almost exactly one year to the day after the Golfgate fiasco – not exactly the kind of bookend the government would want to the year.

So, how did we get here?

The news that the former Minister for Children was to be appointed to the position was broken on Twitter by Irish Examiner political editor, Daniel McConnell, last Tuesday afternoon while a Cabinet meeting was ongoing.

“Breaking: Former Minister Katherine Zappone to be appointed special envoy for freedom of expression, Cabinet approve proposal brought by @LeoVaradkar.. [A detail which later turned out to be incorrect]. Will be paid post with international travel,” McConnell wrote.

The unexpected announcement was immediately followed up by other media and it soon emerged that the newly-created role had never been publicly advertised, raising questions about the process and the job itself. 

It also came to light that it was the decision of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, to appoint Zappone to the role.

Finance minister Paschal Donohoe was among the government politicians who publicly defended the appointment that day, while opposition politicians began making allegations of “cronyism”.

Donohoe noted that Zappone has a strong record in public life here in Ireland and was “eminently qualified to do the work”.

Later that day it also emerged that the salary for the job was €15,000 before tax, for 50-60 days of work a year. 

Wednesday

Efforts to downplay the brewing controversy continued on Wednesday, as the government gave the distinct impression that it was keen to “move on”.

Indeed, Taoiseach Micheal Martin used that exact phrase numerous times while taking questions from reporters.

The Taoiseach explained that there was an “oversight” by Coveney in the procedures relating to Zappone getting the job.

He had not been told of the plan to appoint Zappone to the envoy role prior to the Cabinet meeting the previous day.

Martin added that the appointment of Zappone was only one detail amid 41 other items that Cabinet had to deal with during the meeting.

“Minister Coveney has accepted it was an oversight in terms of procedures”, the Taoiseach said.

We move on now. It’s an issue you have to keep in perspective and leave it at that. 

However, many were far from ready to leave it at that.

That same day senior Fianna Fáil TD Barry Cowen was among those publicly seeking further answers.

The former agriculture minister told RTÉ’s Drivetime programme that the Taoiseach should have asked for more information on Zappone’s appointment when it came before Cabinet.

Friday

Simon Coveney’s role in the appointment came to the fore again on Friday as the Minister for Foreign Affairs took part in a testy interview on RTÉ’s News At One programme.

During the interview Coveney said a communications error led to the Taoiseach being blindsided by the appointment.

“The putting together of a special envoy was a relatively minor issue until it blew up into a political issue,” Coveney said.

I was surprised when the Taoiseach said in Cabinet that he wasn’t aware of the appointment.

Coveney added that he spoke to Martin afterwards to “express regret” about how the appointment had been brought to Cabinet.

He said that Fine Gael ministers knew of the appointment in advance of the meeting but Fianna Fáil and Green ministers did not.

“Some people have said this was some ‘makey-uppey’ job for Katherine Zappone as a favour, and that is most not the case,” Coveney said.

The foreign affairs minister also sought to explain whether Zappone had contacted him about the job by noting that he had spoken to her about the role the previous year, contradicting what had previously been said by members of his own government about Zappone contacting him about the role. 

“She had been working with the Government to get Ireland on the UN Security Council,” Coveney said. 

“My department developed a role of a special envoy. We initially looked at a role in relation to LGBTQ rights in particular.

We decided we would broaden it out to freedom of opinion and expression… I contacted Katherine and asked her if she’d be willing to do this role.

Coveney added that the role was not created specifically for Zappone.

During the interview he also said the appointment was only one of “about 60″ items on the Cabinet agenda during the Tuesday meeting.

Weekend

Discontent rumbled on over the Bank Holiday weekend as the question of what Cabinet member leaked the information about the appointment became the focus of media attention.

Reports in the Irish Times and Sunday Independent noted that the politician responsible had been identified after one of their cabinet colleagues caught them red-handed, apparently – the papers reported – using a clever trap involving a local radio interview that had never taken place.

Yesterday

Calls for Zappone to decline the job reached deafening levels yesterday after the Irish Independent reported that the former Minister organised an outdoor event on the grounds of the Merrion Hotel in Dublin on 21 July, six days prior to her landing the new role.

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Zappone, the Merrion Hotel, the Attorney General and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, who was at the event, have all insisted that the event was compliant with Covid-19 rules at the time.

The inevitable finally came to pass yesterday afternoon as Zappone announced that she would not accept the position.

“While I am honoured to have been appointed by the Government to be the Special Envoy on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, it is clear that criticism of the appointment process has impacted the legitimacy of the role itself,” Zappone said.

Responding to Zappone’s announcement, Minister Simon Coveney 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 controversy took another twist following Zappone’s announcement as the Government Press Office released a statement saying that advice from the Attorney General was that organised events and gatherings could take place for up to 200 people “including social, recreational, exercise, cultural, entertainment or community events”.

Tánaiste Varadkar confirmed that he attended Zappone’s gathering at the Merrion.

“I confirmed in advance directly with her, 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,” Varadkar said.

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

I accept that mistakes were made in the manner in which Dr Zappone was appointed a special envoy and regret the controversy it’s caused.

The fiasco comes in a week where pressure is mounting on the government over the stalled relaxation of restrictions on arts and cultural events, as well as First Holy Communions and Confirmations.

As this summer’s hotel controversy began to unwind yesterday, the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Dermot Farrell questioned why it was “ok” to have 50 people at a “bash” in the Merrion yet Communions and Confirmations aren’t allowed.

Opposition parties were also quick to make comparisons with last year’s ‘Golfgate‘ controversy, which rumbled on for many months and left a raft of political casualties.

About the author:

Céimin Burke

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