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07th Sep 2021

Simon Coveney admits to creating a “political embarrassment” amid Katherine Zappone controversy

Clara Kelly

Coveney admitted that Zappone was “clearly” trying to establish a role for herself in the UN.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has admitted creating a “political embarrassment” for Government amid the controversy surrounding the Special Envoy role offered to former Minister Katherine Zappone.

Coveney acknowledged “making mistakes in recent weeks” saying that Zappone was “cleary” trying to establish a career for herself in the UN.

Coveney told the Oireachtas during a second round of questioning on Tuesday that he had begun to explore “the concept for Ireland” of a Special Envoy role to focus on LGBT issues after hearing that the US was looking to establish a similar role.

He added that after conversations with the Secretary General of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Niall Burgess, that he reached out to Zappone on 3 March to ask if she would be interested in that kind of role should the opportunity arise.

He said that Zappone was “very excited” about the prospect, as was “clear” in her text messages.

“I think it would have been helpful, as I said in my opening statement if I had of clarified that it was not a job offer at this point,” he said.

He added that he “at no point” discussed terms and conditions of the role with Zappone.

When questioned by the committee on breaching legislation that requires a one year cooling off period for former Ministers and bodies they interacted with while in Government, he said that he “did not” tell Zappone that she was breaching the legislation by reaching out to offer her services.

Zappone “was and isn’t entitled to anything” he continued.

“This came on the back of Katherine Zappone reaching out for some advice from me,” he said.

The Foreign Affairs Minister said that he “doesn’t believe there was a conflict of interest”, saying: “I didn’t see any and I certainly didn’t get any advice from my officials to that effect.”

Coveney said he spoke with Finance Minister Paschal Donohe “early in the year” during a phone conversation of which there are no records, who suggested Zappone reach out to him for advice as “she was clearly trying to find a career for herself in the UN.

Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe said that he was never lobbied by former Minister Katherine Zappone about the UN Special Envoy role.

He told Newstalk’s On The Record programme on Monday that Zappone approached him late last year “regarding a future in the UN”, adding that he suggested she contact Coveney for advice which he mentioned to him in early 2021.

“I had no further engagement with Minister Coveney on the matter,” he said.

“I had one discussion with Simon Coveney that happened in the early part of this year, in which I’d said to Simon that Katherine was thinking about her own future in the context of international organisations and would it be okay if he made contact with her.

In WhatsApp messages released by the Department of Foreign Affairs on Monday it was revealed that Zappone texted Coveney on 4 March about the role, four months before he position was discussed by Cabinet.

The text read: “Hi Simon, thank you so, so much for offering me this incredible opportunity. It will be such a privilege and I will be so proud to serve Ireland again. I think the time is really ripe for change too.

“Could you let me know the time period the appointment is for, and what are next steps,” she added.

“As you know I am working with UNFPA till mid or end of June. Thank you again so much Simon – especially when you have so much on your plate. I spoke with paschal too yesterday. Warmest, Katherine.

The second round of questioning comes as last Tuesday, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence noted at a meeting that he routinely deletes text messages for storage space reasons.

Coveney sought to clarify the matter on Wednesday, insisting that any related texts that were later deleted were part of a regular habit of clearing messages.

Coveney also stated that he changes his phone once a year for security reasons.

Last month it was reported that an event at Merrion hotel on 30 July was attended by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and around 50 other people, just days before the appointment of Zappone to the UN envoy role.

The event generated a significant degree of controversy since, not least as it was made without the knowledge of Taoiseach Micheál Martin.

Zappone has since confirmed that she would not accept the appointment to the role.

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