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Saturday 23 September 2023 Dublin: 6°C File images of Leo Varadkar, Zatherine Zappone and Simon Coveney.
# Merrion Gate
Explainer: Why are people still talking about the Zappone/Coveney/Varadkar controversy?
There have been a lot of twists and turns. But why does it all matter?

THE CONTROVERSY OVER Katherine Zappone’s since-abandoned appointment to a part-time role at the UN and an outdoor drinks event she hosted in Dublin dominated headlines about a month ago, before fading into the background. 

This has changed in recent days after a number of new revelations related to the appointment and the event emerged. 

Let’s take a look back at what happened in late July, what’s happening now and why – to the extent that it matters – it all matters. 


Merrion Hotel 001 Sam Boal File image outside the Merrion Hotel in Dublin. Sam Boal

In late July, news emerged that former Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone was to be appointed to a new role of Ireland’s Special Envoy to the UN for freedom of opinion and expression.

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney brought a memo to a Cabinet meeting following discussions between himself, Zappone, and his department officials.

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

The Taoiseach Micheál Martin was blindsided by the appointment having not been told about it beforehand, but the full Cabinet signed off anyway. 

The salary for the job was to be €15,000 before tax for 50 to 60 days of work a year. 

In the early days of August, the Irish Independent first reported that Zappone had hosted an event at the Merrion Hotel in Dublin in the days before her appointment to the Special Envoy role.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar was among about 50 people in attendance at the function, although he later said he attended only briefly. Newly elected Labour TD Ivana Bacik also dropped by.

The government sought advice from the Attorney General Paul Gallagher amid controversy over the number of guests at the outdoor event. 

The AG advised that organised events and gatherings could take place for up to 200 people “including social, recreational, exercise, cultural, entertainment or community events”.

After a few days, Fáilte Ireland updating its guidelines for organised outdoor events.

The saga around the guidelines and regulations led to a slew of criticism from opposition parties, representatives from industry groups and religious leaders over attendance limitations at other gatherings and events.

Zappone announced that she would not accept the position and coverage on the proceedings largely died down in the following weeks. 

NO FEE TAOISEACH IRELAND UN SEAT JB5 oJulian Behal photography File image of Katherine Zappone, Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney. oJulian Behal photography

Events this week

A sequence of events in the past few days brought this story back to the spotlight once again. 

Coveney appeared before a meeting of the Oireachtas Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee on Tuesday to face questions on Zappone’s appointment to the UN position. 

At this meeting, he said Zappone did not lobby him for the job. 

He also said that while he didn’t receive a formal invitation to the Merrion Hotel event, he did receive a text from Zappone about it taking place.

He added that 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.

He said he had since deleted a number of text messages exchanged with Zappone and Varadkar in relation to the role and the Merrion Hotel event.

He later 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.

It’s this act that has caused opposition TDs and others to raise concerns about the process of a government minister deleting text messages.

Navy anniversary 005 Sam Boal Simon Coveney speaking to members of the press this week. Sam Boal

Amid the renewed criticism Minister Coveney requested to appear again before an Oireachtas Committee as soon as possible to provide clarity over the situation. He is due to do so next week. 

Under the 2014 FOI Act, records can be requested from relevant bodies – including government departments.

The records include written or printed materials in any form, including in any electronic device. 

Several journalists had submitted FOI requests when the story first emerged earlier this summer for correspondence between Varadkar, Coveney and Zappone in relation to the Special Envoy role.

Text messages were then released by Varadkar on Wednesday showing his separate conversations with Zappone and Coveney about the Merrion Hotel event and Zappone’s appointment as Special Envoy. 

The messages showed that Zappone asked 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.

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?”

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”. 

9620 Cabinet Meeting File image of Katherine Zappone last year.

On 19 July, Varadkar texted Coveney to ask if he knew ”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.”

However, these texts had not been released to the number of journalists and politicians who had submitted FOI requests in relation to the correspondence. 

Varadkar explained that text messages on his phone relating to the issue were not initially released under the FOI Act because he “was on annual leave”, while those who submitted requests had been told the records did not exist.

The Tánaiste said procedures would be put in place to avoid a repeat of the situation, but added this could mean “delays” to the FOI process.

Freedom of Information concerns

Varadkar said he was not asked whether he had messages on his phone by the FOI officer in charge of the requests submitted.

The Tánaiste said on Thursday that the FOI officer “doesn’t work in the department any more” but that there will not be any sanctions for them.

“As I think has been explained by my department, the FOI officer did their job. They looked up the emails, looked up the paper records, didn’t find anything,” he told reporters. 

“Because I was away and my senior staff were away, I wasn’t asked whether I had any messages on my phone. That’s what happened, an honest oversight. I don’t think there will be any consequences for the official involved. It would be very unfair.” 

Economic Recovery Plan 001 Sasko Lazarov Sasko Lazarov

People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy wrote to the Information Commissioner, whose office is tasked with reviewing decisions taken by FOI bodies on FOI requests, to ask him to investigate whether Coveney breached the FOI Act by deleting text messages.

A statement issued on Thursday by the Office of the Information Commissioner said the commissioner has no role in examining the records management practices of public bodies or in directing public bodies to manage records in a specific way. 

Co-leader of the Social Democrats Róisín Shortall said the “entire affair raises serious issues about behaviour of certain ministers and the operation of government generally”. 

“It seems clear now that inconsistent and inaccurate testimony was given to the committee. He said he deleted messages due to storage issues with his phone and the next day he changed this story and said it was due to his phone being hacked,” Shortall said on RTÉ radio’s News at One. 

The deletion of text messages by a minister is a very serious matter. We need to know whether this is an ad hoc deletion that goes on on a regular basis.

“He’s been a minister for ten years – has he been deleting text messages which are official government records during that time?”

Shortall said the minister has an obligation to retain these records and said there is an “important questions about when he deleted those messages”. 

“If it was after the FOI request came in seeking that information, well then that would amount to an offence  but whenever it was, it is not good practice and ministers are required to retain text messages that relate to government business.”

She said he had informed the Oireachtas committee that he told the Tánaiste before the appointment that Zappone was being considered for the role, but Shortall claimed Varadkar’s texts show “she was in effect already appointed, the decision had been taken and a contract was being drawn up”.

She raised concerns that Zappone had lobbied for the job, which Coveney had denied was the case in his Tuesday appearance at the committee meeting. 

Sinn Féin TD Pearse Doherty told RTÉ radio that he had also submitted an FOI on 30 July looking for text messages from Simon Coveney in relation to this issue. 

Doherty said it was unacceptable that the text messages had not previously been made available when they were requested under the FOI Act.

“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.”

002 Pearse Doherty LEAH FARRELL; Sinn Féin TD Pearse Doherty said he submitted FOIs in relation to correspondence between Coveney and Zappone. LEAH FARRELL;


Varadkar, Coveney and several other ministers have acknowledged the poor handling of the appointment to the Special Envoy role. 

Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris said: “Everybody across government, the three parties in government, have fully accepted that this entire process could have and should have been handled differently.”

The Taoiseach and Tánaiste have both disagreed with a comparison of this situation to events which led to ministerial resignations last summer.

Comparisons were made to Barry Cowen being sacked from his role as Agriculture Minister and Dara Calleary resigning from the same role after attending the Oireachtas Golf Society Event. 

The Taoiseach appeared to be coming out fighting, attempting to draw a line under the situation – even bringing along the text of the statement he made last year upon Cowen’s termination to the launch of the government’s housing plan on Thursday. 

“I just think there’s a tendency in modern political discourse to elevate issues of this kind that they should not be elevated to,” Martin said.

He said he was “left with no alternative” when Cowen would not “go into the House and give full transparency” over his driving ban in 2016 for drink-driving. 

On Calleary, Martin said the TD “did pay a high price in terms of the attendance at that event which followed government decisions or regulations that government had taken in respect of Covid-19″. 

Varadkar said of comparisons between these terminations and the current situation: “I think what you’re trying to do is say that an apple’s an orange.”

The Tánaiste denied that the controversy of this situation has overshadowed the government’s work – including the announcement of its housing plan.

With Simon Coveney due to appear before an Oireachtas committee again on Tuesday to answer further questions, the issue doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. 

Additional reporting by Christina Finn.

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