Q&A: The Simon Coveney appointment row

By Chris Andrews

image source, PA Media
image captionSimon Coveney has faced pressure over his handling of the appointment

The Republic of Ireland’s Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney is due to face a confidence motion on Wednesday as the Dáil (Irish parliament) returns from its summer recess.

The motion is in relation to controversial plans to appoint a UN special envoy.

In July, it was announced that Katherine Zappone, a former government minister, would take on the role.

However, the following month she withdrew amid accusations by opposition parties of cronyism.

Sinn Féin tabled a motion of no confidence in Mr Coveney over the appointment, but the government is countering this with a motion of confidence, due to be debated and voted on by TDs (members of parliament) later on Wednesday.

Who is Katherine Zappone?

Born in the United States, Ms Zappone is a former TD (member of parliament) and Irish senator.

image source, PA Media
image captionKatherine Zappone was a ministerial colleague of Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar

In 2016, under the Fine Gael government, she was appointed to the role of minister for children and youth affairs and lost her seat as a TD in the country’s 2020 general election.

What is the controversy about?

On 27 July 2021, Simon Coveney, a Fine Gael member of the coalition government, informed the cabinet that Ms Zappone would become the new “Special Envoy to the UN for Freedom of Opinion and Expression”.

It was reported the role would carry a €15,000 salary (£12,800) and require about 60 days work a year.

After cabinet, it transpired that neither Fianna Fáil nor Green Party members of the coalition cabinet knew about the proposed appointment.

The job had not been advertised and was not open to competition, despite being taxpayer funded.

There was speculation that the news led to internal divisions between the government partners, however, Taoiseach Micheál Martin, of Fianna Fáil, did not block it.

He went on to describe the way it was revealed at cabinet as an “oversight” and suggested people “move on now” in the face of criticism by opposition parties.

But they didn’t move on?

image source, PA Media
image captionLeo Varadkar said he had not been aware of the appointment until days before the cabinet meeting

The pair discussed the appointment at the event, but Mr Varadkar later said he had only learned about it through text exchanges the previous week.

Mr Varadkar replied “nope” and later texted Mr Coveney on 19 July if he knew “anything about her becoming our LGBT envoy”.

image captionSimon Coveney replied to Leo Varadkar who asked if he knew of Ms Zappone’s appointment

Mr Coveney responded that Ms Zappone was to finalise a 12-month contract on 21 July and was “very happy”. Mr Coveney told Mr Varadkar in the text message that he planned to take a memo to government the following week.

Criticism of Mr Coveney’s role intensified, however, when he later said that he had deleted text messages about the appointment.

What else did Simon Coveney have to say?

Mr Coveney denied that he had been lobbied to give Ms Zappone the role and said he thought she was “very suitable” for an area where there was a “worthwhile job to be done”.

The minister did concede that he “made a mistake” and apologised to the taoiseach for not informing him prior to the cabinet meeting.

Mr Coveney also denied claims that Ms Zappone had been offered a UN role from as early as March.

image source, Houses of the Oireachtas
image captionMr Coveney made two appearances before a committee of TDs over the controversy

He also rejected an accusation that he had breached freedom of information legislation by deleting text messages.

However, Mr Coveney apologised to the committee for needing to hold a second evidence session with him due to his “sloppiness” over explaining the circumstances behind the row.

On Tuesday, Mr Coveney told a party conference that he was “embarrassed” that the appointment had led to a “fiasco”.

“It’s not been my finest month in politics,” he said.

What did the opposition say?

News of the initial appointment was seized upon by the opposition, in particular Sinn Féin, which accused those involved of displaying cronyism.

She branded his actions as not being “of the standard expected of a minister”.

How did Katherine Zappone respond to the fallout?

On 4 August, Ms Zappone explained that she would not take on the role, but had been “honoured” to have been considered for it.

She continued: “It is clear that criticism of the appointment process has impacted the legitimacy of the role itself.

“It is my conviction that a special envoy role can only be of real value to Ireland and to the global community if the appointment is acceptable to all parties.

“For this reason, I have decided not to accept this appointment and I have communicated my decision to the minister for foreign affairs,” she added.

How is the vote expected to go?

The government is due to table a counter motion of confidence to the Sinn Féin motion on Wednesday evening.

It is expected that Fine Gael and the Green Party will also show support for Mr Coveney.

Sinn Féín TD Matt Carthy said his party had “no option” but to call for a vote of no confidence.

He told RTÉ that Mr Coveney’s role had been “indefensible” and accused Mr Martin of having “failed to do his job” by not taking action.

The taoiseach said Sinn Féin was attempting to “divide and conquer”.

Mr Martin added that it was “not proportionate” for Mr Coveney to leave office over such an issue.

Justice Minister Heather Humphreys, of Fine Gael, said a vote of no confidence was “opportunistic” and that Mr Coveney had already “put his hands up” over mistakes that were made.

image source, PA Media
image captionThe taoiseach said he would back Mr Coveney in a confidence motion

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