Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has apologised for “sloppiness” and for making mistakes in the past few weeks in explaining the circumstances around the appointment of Katherine Zappone as a special envoy.
Mr Coveney is making a second appearance before the Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs within a week after inconsistencies emerged in the account he gave last Tuesday of the process leading up to her appointment on July 27th.
However, the Minister has insisted Ms Zappone never asked him for a job at any stage, and he said he never made her a firm offer last March – some four months before the official offer was made to her.
A text from Ms Zappone sent in early March thanked Mr Coveney enthusiastically in relation to a special envoy role.
However, Mr Coveney denied strongly that it was anything that amounted to an offer.
In his opening statement to the committee, he said that the Department of Foreign Affairs at that stage was interested in exploring the concept of the role. He said he told her that in a phone call on March 3rd.
“It triggered a text to me the following day enthusiastically thanking me.
“It was not a job offer at that stage. As I made clear the concept had to be developed, and that has been made clear from the documentation that has been released,” he said.
“I should have been clearer with Katherine Zappone on the extent of the work needed before a formal role would be offered to her. I did not speak again to her until July 19th despite the fact she was looking for updates.”
Mr Coveney apologised to the committee for “creating the circumstances of a second hearing in a week.
“It was due to the sloppiness of some of my answers to some of your legitimate questions last week.”
Mr Coveney said he had made mistakes in recent weeks in terms of convincingly explaining how the job came about.
“It has led to political embarrassment for the Government.”
Statements to the committee
Sinn Féin spokesman on foreign affairs John Brady accused Mr Coveney of attempting to “deliberately mislead the committee”.
Mr Brady claimed Ms Zappone had lobbied Ministers and Geraldine Byrne Nason, Ireland’s ambassador to the United Nations, looking for the role.
He portrayed the events of the past week as as “a scramble for cover by you and other Ministers, deleting messages and making misleading statements like you did last week”.
Mr Brady said Mr Coveney and Minister for Finance Pascal Donohoe knew “exactly what was going on” at least four months before. He said Tánaiste Leo Varadkar was aware at least 11 days before the Government decision on July 27th.
Mr Brady asked Mr Coveney about his contacts with Mr Donohoe.
The Minister replied he had an informal conversation with Mr Donohoe in late January or early February who said Ms Zappone might get in contact with him “in view of taking advice about getting work in the United Nations”.
Mr Coveney denied any inference that he instructed his department to create a role for Ms Zappone.
“I worked with the secretary general. We saw the possibility of developing a special envoy role . . . we saw it as an opportunity. We saw Katherine Zappone as an experienced person who was suitable for that role.”
Earlier, Mr Coveney said Ms Zappone had texted him for advice on working with US Aid on LGBTI issues and whether he could make an introduction for her.
“The idea of Katherine Zappone playing a role for Ireland came about from a short conversation I had with the secretary general of the Department of Foreign Affairs Niall Burgess [on February 24th] when I asked would she be of use. I had not spoken to her at that stage. The secretary general responded positively.
“I told her of the conversation on a phone call on February 26th and agreed to come back when [Mr Burgess] had any update. [He] came back a few days later to say US president Joe Biden would be appointing a special envoy [for LGBTI issues] and was interested in the department exploring the benefits of such a role.
“In that context I raised the issue of a special envoy with Katherine Zappone and said would she be interested [in the phone call on March 3rd].
Mr Coveney said that triggered a text the following day enthusiastically thanking him – which he again insisted was not a job offer.
Mr Burgess also told the committee that he was interested in developing a special envoy role for LGBT rights when it was mentioned to him, as several other countries including the US had done so.
Deleted texts, FOI, lobbying
Social Democrats TD Garry Gannon said there were two clear instances where Mr Coveney had failed to dissuade Ms Zappone from her belief she had been offered a role.
The first was his failure to tell her when she texted on March 4th thanking him for the offer. The second was when she texted him on May 3rd saying Mr Coveney had mentioned June as a start date.
How could she have believed a start date of June 3rd when no offer had been made, asked Mr Gannon.
Mr Coveney said “with the benefit of hindsight” it would have been helpful for him to have clarified that with her.
He said the June date had come about from their conversation in February when she informed him that she had commitments with another UN agency until the middle of June.
Mr Gannon asked Mr Coveney if he should reflect on his view that Ms Zappone had not lobbied for the job.
“That is my view. I never felt pressure. If I had I would have been responding back to her,” replied Mr Coveney.
Mr Gannon said her request to get an introduction to former US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, also appeared to be lobbying.
“Why does that not appear in the lobbying register? There was an obligation on both you and Paschal Donohoe to register.”
Mr Coveney said he did not accept that interpretation of events. “Paschal Donohoe and Katherine Zappone are friends. They spoke last year. She asked for advice. He suggested that she contact me.”
Mr Gannon intervened. “So that’s not lobbying? Friends of Ministers don’t come under the same category [as others]?”
Mr Gannon also said Mr Coveney’s deleting of texts was in breach of the Freedom of Information Act. He asked Mr Coveney when he deleted the texts of his conversation with the Tánaiste between July 16th and 19th. Mr Coveney said he deleted them shortly after the conversation.
He confirmed they were deleted before any Freedom of Information request was made.
“There is a security element to that. It is an issue for me. As a matter for course, when I don’t think it necessary to have text messages on my phone because something is concluded and moving on, I delete them,” he said.
Mr Coveney said if he was trying to hide the existence of text messages he would not have made them all available to a FOI request . . . I did not delete texts in an effort to hide anything,” he insisted.
Fianna Fáil TD Barry Cowen said there was a one-year “cooling-off” period for Ministers after they resign when they are not allowed to engage in discussions on working with the UN or any public bodies with which they interacted as Ministers.