DUBLIN — Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney apologized to colleagues Tuesday for his central role in what he conceded was “a political fiasco” over a botched United Nations appointment.
Yet Coveney’s second parliamentary grilling in a week failed to resolve key questions about whether he and Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar encouraged insider lobbying and sought to dodge Freedom of Information Act requests from journalists.
Coveney and Varadkar have come under fire over the botched appointment of former government minister Katherine Zappone to a U.N. post.
Coveney insisted to the parliament’s foreign affairs committee that he hadn’t really offered the U.N. job to Zappone in March — more than four months before Prime Minister Micheál Martin learned, to his annoyance, about the appointment at the Cabinet table.
The conflict has deepened tensions between Martin’s Fianna Fáil and Varadkar’s Fine Gael, two parties that are sharing power in government for the first time. Under terms of their novel 2020 pact, Martin is supposed to hand the premier’s chair to Varadkar before Christmas — if the two sides can keep working together.
Yet this episode illustrates how Fine Gael has repeatedly bounced Fianna Fáil on policy matters, fueling deep unease within Martin’s party ranks.
And each time Coveney has struggled to explain his handling of the aborted Zappone appointment, contradictions from previous statements and new irreconcilable gaps in logic appear.
Coveney’s return to the witness stand came the day after his department published more than 100 documents detailing Zappone’s communications with Coveney, Varadkar and Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe — all Fine Gael politicians — as she was gradually prepared for a new role as Ireland’s “special envoy to the U.N. for freedom of opinion and expression.”
Included in the document dump — which Coveney described as the biggest ever published by his department — was a March 4 text from Zappone to Coveney thanking him “so, so much for this incredible opportunity. It will be a privilege and I will be so proud to serve Ireland again.”
When questioned repeatedly about what other lawmakers said was obvious evidence of a job offer, Coveney portrayed Zappone as getting ahead of herself. Yet Coveney said he hadn’t responded and instead allowed her confusion to linger for months.
“It would have been helpful if I had responded to her text to clarify that it wasn’t a job offer at that stage. It was simply a concept that may materialize later on,” Coveney said.
Several lawmakers accused him of aiding Zappone’s lobbying efforts since last year, after she had lost her parliamentary seat and relocated to New York. Ireland’s ethics rules require a one-year “cooling off” period for such contacts.
“The published data graphically shows an entirely different story than the yarn you tried to spin, not just to the committee members but to the public as a whole,” said John Brady from the main opposition Sinn Féin party.
Coveney insisted that he had proposed the position to Zappone in March in theory only, but could not offer it to her in concrete form until July. He said the post required detailed planning and costing by senior department officials.
July also happened to be one year since Zappone stepped down from office in Ireland’s previous Fine Gael-led government. Zappone withdrew her U.N. candidacy on August 4 citing “criticism of the appointment process.”
Initially, journalists seeking all government records on the proposed Zappone appointment had their Freedom of Information requests rejected on the grounds that no such records existed.
That position crumbled last week when Varadkar published his own text records on the matter, followed by Coveney’s departmental document dump, in which all the rebuffed FOI applications had been rebranded as fulfilled.
These reveal Zappone’s messages involving Coveney, Donohoe, senior Dublin civil servants and even Ireland’s ambassador to the U.N., Geraldine Byrne Nason. They show that initially, Zappone sought Coveney’s help in winning a job on the team of Samantha Power, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. He countered by suggesting an Irish envoy role instead.
“I can understand why the public looking at this political fiasco as it’s unfolded would interpret this in the way that some of you have, as this being lobbying,” Coveney said.
Fianna Fáil lawmaker Barry Cowen told Coveney he’d been wrong to delete politically sensitive texts from his phone on the matter, while Varadkar’s office should have complied fully with the FOI requests.
He said Coveney failed “to understand that government business by text is state property and not private data that can be deleted.”
Coveney argued, however, that he would continue to delete texts from his government-supplied phone whenever he deemed conversations with colleagues were “finished.”
For this reason, he said, he had deleted texts with Varadkar quickly and in advance of the July 27 Cabinet meeting at which Zappone’s appointment was proposed. He noted, in passing, that such deleted texts were not available for future FOI requests.
Yet the document dump showed that Coveney had failed to delete 2020 texts with Zappone, including ones lauding Joe Biden’s presidential victory that November in the U.S.
Sinn Féin’s Sorca Clarke said this showed that Coveney’s stated rationale for deleting texts was nonsense since he was deleting important texts with Varadkar but not “general chitchat about the Biden election.”
She asked Coveney to confirm what texts from Varadkar remained on his phone now, but the Fine Gael committee chairman intervened to say the two-hour hearing had run out of time.
Afterward, Sinn Féin said Coveney’s insistence that Zappone hadn’t lobbied government ministers for the U.N. role was “not only mind-boggling but deeply worrying.”