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Varadkar and Coveney 'accept responsibility' for oversight in appointing Zappone special envoy

Varadkar said Zappone approached Coveney about the position.

File image: Zappone, Varadkar and Coveney pictured last June when Ireland won its seat on the UN Security Council.
File image: Zappone, Varadkar and Coveney pictured last June when Ireland won its seat on the UN Security Council.
Image: Rollingnews.

TANÁISTE LEO VARADKAR has said he and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney have “accepted responsibility” for the “oversight of procedures” that left Taoiseach Micheál Martin in the dark about Katherine Zappone’s appointment as UN special envoy.

Cabinet yesterday approved the appointment of former Minister for Children Katherine Zappone to the position of UN special envoy on freedom of opinion and expression - doing work on behalf of the Irish government for a two-year period.

Martin was unaware that Zappone was being put forward for the role, with her name brought to Cabinet at the last minute. Martin is understood to have raised concerns, not at her appointment, but the procedure and manner it had happened. He ultimately approved the appointment.

Martin told reporters today that Coveney rang him last night to apologise for the oversight and that “procedurally it could have been done better”. 

“All in good faith and we move on,” said Martin. 

Varadkar told Today with Claire Byrne that the appointment should have been flagged with the Taoiseach prior to yesterday’s Cabinet meeting, and that Zappone did not get the job due to “cronyism”.  

“The procedure would normally be that at the advisors meeting the names are flagged, and in this case they weren’t. The line Minister, in this case Mr Coveney, or me as party leader, would have flagged it to the other party leaders or to the Taoiseach – and that didn’t happen,” he said.

“Why didn’t it happen? There were 46 items on the agenda of much greater importance, and more than 20 appointments and as is sometimes the case in the last meeting of term things like this slip through but it should have been flagged.“

Sinn Féín’s Mairéad Farrell described the appointment as “more Fine Gael cronyism” and “nothing more than Minister Simon Coveney looking after a former government colleague”.

“The only transparency about this process was the see-through faux outrage from Taoiseach Micheál Martin – posturing about having concerns about the appointment while simultaneously rubber-stamping it,” said Farrell.

Aontú Leader Peadar Tóibín said that given his lack of knowledge, Martin should not have rubberstamped the decision.

We are calling on the Government to reverse the decision and create a transparent recruitment process that is open to all those qualified and interested. The culture of cronyism cannot be allowed to continue in Irish society. Jobs and roles must be given on the basis of merit.

Varadkar said the claim of cronyism was “nonsense” and that a special envoy is not a position that is typically advertised: “It’s a position where somebody is approached or somebody offers to do a particular job, they usually are a retired diplomat or retired politician.”

He added that his understanding was that Zappone approached Coveney about the position:

“She got this job because she’s the person most qualified for it. She knows the UN system. She’s based in New York. She’s been a national and international leader on human rights, and on LGBTI issues, and that’s why she offered to do it.”

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“The truth is if this appointment had gone to a retired diplomat or retired civil servant nobody would have batted an eyelid on this. Because it’s a retired politician, people are making political charges.”

Zappone will earn €13,000-€15,000 before tax, as the salary is on a pro-rata basis. Varadkar added that Zappone will put in “hundreds of hours” and that it is not a plum, well-paid position. 

No additional money will be provided to the department for the new role, which the minister said would come from the existing Department of Foreign Affairs budget.

The department said the appointment will provide “enhanced capacity for engagement on Irish human rights priorities”.

Zappone was previously appointed the government’s special envoy for Ireland’s candidature for election to the UN Security Council, a seat which Ireland now holds.

Before becoming a senator and TD, Zappone held the position as Commissioner for the Irish Human Rights Commission and Equality Commission.

- With reporting from Christina Finn

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