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13th Sep 2021

“I did, absolutely.” Varadkar reveals he apologised to Micheál Martin over Katherine Zappone controversy

Dave Hanratty

Leo Varadkar Freedom of Information Act Zappone

“I know something about making coalitions work.”

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has revealed that he apologised to Taoiseach Micheál Martin over the ongoing fallout related to the proposed special envoy appointment of Katherine Zappone and has called for a “review and a refresh” of the Freedom of Information Act as a result.

In conversation with Mary Wilson on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland ahead of Fine Gael’s scheduled meeting on Wednesday, Varadkar was quickly confronted with the widespread criticism that his coalition government has faced in recent weeks. The word ‘omni-shambles’ once again entered the conversation, though Varadkar held firm.

“In relation to the Zappone appointment – as you know, the memo with the name of Katherine Zappone was in the Taoiseach’s office the day before the cabinet meeting,” he began.

“Notwithstanding that, Simon Coveney and I had a responsibility to flag that to him – him as line minister, me as leader – in government there should be good faith and no surprises.”

Asked if he apologised to Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Varadkar said that he had.

“I did, absolutely. This is the third coalition I have been involved in – I know something about making coalitions work. Both of them lasted full-term. It has to be based on two principles; good faith – and we have good faith in this government among the three parties and the three leaders – and no surprises.

“I should have seen the potential political sensitivities in this appointment,” Varadkar continued. “It’s not the first time we have appointed special envoys. We have been doing them for years, usually appointed directly by the Taoiseach or the Minister for Foreign Affairs, never been a particular process followed.

“But because it was a former cabinet minister, it was potentially politically sensitive. I should have seen that. I didn’t, and I take responsibility for that and I spoke to the Taoiseach about it.”

Asked if the government requires clear rules “at the very least” in the wake of the Zappone scandal, Varadkar called for a potential overhauling of the Freedom of Information Act.

“You know, I think we do,” he said.

“The Freedom of Information Act was refreshed in 2015 but I don’t think it was refreshed adequately. When freedom of information was first developed as a concept, it largely related to files – both paper files and electronic files. The world has moved on a lot since then. A huge amount of things that would have been done as a conversation in the past are now done…”

At this point, Varadkar was asked precisely what he intends to do in relation to the Freedom of Information Act.

“Well, I think we’re going to do a review and a refresh. Bear in mind one thing for example – direct messages. You probably get them all the time, you get DMs on Twitter, you get DMs on Instagram – you probably don’t even know that you’ve ever received these messages and yet, in theory, you should be releasing them under FOI.

“It’s not just ministers, by the way,” Varadkar continued. “The Freedom of Information Act extends to all civil servants, all public servants and all public bodies so it potentially extends to hundreds of thousands of people and there shouldn’t be different rules for us.”

Asked flat-out if the government will indeed undertake a review of the act, Varadkar responded:

“Yes. I think that would be absolutely the right thing to do.”

At the weekend, Varadkar’s partner Matt Barrett condemned the act of photographing the Tánaiste at a UK music festival, calling the nature of privacy into question.

“The notion that the right to privacy is one which is conditional on the attitudes, sensibilities and prejudices of another is both ridiculous and dangerous,” Barrett wrote.

“The individual who photographed the Tánaiste does not have a right to violate this merely because she believed it was justified and consistent with her own beliefs about what constitutes appropriate behaviour.”

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