Coveney apologises for ‘sloppy’ answers that led to political embarrassment

The Minister for Foreign Affairs insisted that he never offered Ms Zappone the role of a special envoy in early March. Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Simon Coveney has apologised for his “sloppiness” in addressing the controversy surrounding Katherine Zappone, admitting that it has caused a “political embarrassment” for Government.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs insisted that he never offered Ms Zappone the role of a special envoy in early March, despite the former Government minister thanking him for the opportunity.

Mr Coveney was questioned by the Committee on Foreign Affairs for the second time over the appointment of Ms Zappone in July.

He apologised to the committee for “creating the circumstances” that led to a second hearing in a week.

The Fine Gael Minister said this was due to the “sloppiness” of some of his answers to legitimate questions put forward by committee members.

In documents released by the foreign affairs department on Monday, it was revealed that Ms Zappone thanked Mr Coveney for the “incredible opportunity” to work as a special envoy.

The text was sent more than four months before Taoiseach Micheal Martin was made aware of the proposal.

However, Mr Coveney has insisted Ms Zappone never asked him for a job at any stage, and said he never made her a firm offer last March.

Referring to a text message Ms Zappone sent to Mr Coveney on March 4, the Fine Gael minister said: “It wasn’t a job offer at that stage, as I made it very clear that the concept needed to be developed by the department, which is exactly what subsequently happened as the files show.

The Government remains under pressure over the controversy surrounding the abandoned appointment of Ms Zappone.

“Looking back now, I should have been clearer with Katherine on the extent of the work needed in the department before a formal role could be offered to her.”

The Government remains under pressure over the controversy surrounding the abandoned appointment of Ms Zappone as UN special envoy on freedom of expression.

The former children’s minister stepped back from the position after a storm arose around the manner of her appointment.

On Monday, Mr Coveney’s department released more than 100 documents relating to the appointment process of Ms Zappone as a UN envoy.

The papers revealed a series of text messages Ms Zappone sent to the minister about the role from March until August.

“I think it would have been helpful, with the benefit of hindsight, if I had responded to that text,” Mr Coveney added.

“I had spoken to her on February 26 when I told her that I had spoken to the Sec Gen about whether we could use her which she was happy about, but I said to her there was no role at that stage,” he added.

“I said to her that we were looking to develop potentially a role of a special envoy position, would you be interested in that.

“I said it will take time to develop role.

“The end of June was Pride week and when I said to her the department was going to work on this, I said I would hope to have it done by the end of summer, by Pride week.

“She clearly took from that she wanted to … the job to be announced at that point.”

Mr Coveney also denied he was lobbied by his former Government colleague.

“I never felt pressure from Katherine Zappone in relation to this job. If I had I would have been responding back to her,” he told the committee.

Katherine Zappone Credit: Niall Carson/PA

“If anything, I potentially could be criticised for largely ignoring her texts.

“I certainly didn’t see it as a form of lobbying.”

Mr Coveney denied Ms Zappone asked him for a job, “at any stage”.

“She did text me for advice, on February 22, about the possibility of working with USAID on women, gender equality and LGBTQ issues, and whether I could make an introduction for her,” he added.

“That’s all she looked for from me at that point and I didn’t respond.

“Secondly, the idea of Katherine Zappone playing a role for the Irish Government came about from a short conversation I had with my Secretary General on the 24th of February after a meeting, when I raised the question as to whether she might be of use to our team at the UN.

“I hadn’t spoken to Katherine at that stage. The Sec Gen responded positively, but said he wanted to take some time to think about it.

“I told Katherine of that conversation in a phone call on the 26th February and agreed to come back to her when the Sec Gen had any update.

“Niall Burgess subsequently came back to me a few days later to say that the (US president Joe) Biden administration would be appointing a special envoy for LGBTI+ rights and that he was interested in the department exploring the benefits of such a role for Ireland.

“So, it was in that context that I raised the possibility of a special envoy role with Katherine Zappone and asked her if she’d be interested in such a role should the department develop and recommend it.”

The suggestion that Ms Zappone had misunderstood the job offer was criticised by Fianna Fail Senator Catherine Ardagh.

“I find it quite dochreidte (unbelievable) that a narrative is being peddled that Katherine Zappone misunderstood what the minister was offering her on February 26,” she said.

“She is a very capable woman, she is a former minister, and it is just beggars belief that she would get the messaging wrong, a role wasn’t being offered to her.”

Mr Coveney told the senator that he rang Ms Zappone on Sunday as a “courtesy call” to let her know the documents would be released this week.