The Minister for Foreign Affairs has said he alone made the decision to approach Katherine Zappone for a role as Special Envoy for Freedom of Expression to the UN, and that Ms Zappone did not lobby him for the role.
Simon Coveney was speaking this evening to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence about the appointment of special envoys and the situation in Afghanistan.
Mr Coveney said special envoys have been appointed by his department for many years, and that EU partners and like-minded states also appoint such roles to deepen engagement in various regions.
He said special envoys in the North have played particularly important roles.
The minister said he recalls the contribution of time-limited special envoys during the efforts to secure the presidency of the UN Security Council for Ireland, which begins tomorrow.
Mr Coveney said these envoys are especially useful where Ireland has no consular presence.
He said he would like to acknowledge the work of former minister Katherine Zappone and that the decision to appoint her was taken to further bolster the work in securing the role of presidency.
Ms Zappone stepped down as minister last summer and Minister Coveney said she reached out to him last summer saying she would be available to help in any way she could.
Mr Coveney said they spoke as former colleagues, and they spoke after US President Joe Biden’s victory.
"She told me of work she was doing in the UN system. I never considered she was lobbying for a job, " he said.
"After that chat, I reflected on the conversation."
Mr Coveney said Ms Zappone had campaigned her whole life and was now living in New York.
He went on to say that he met with the Secretary General at his department later on, and at the end of the meeting he asked him for his view on whether Katherine Zappone would be good in the role of special envoy. He said he would reflect on that.
Mr Coveney said in view of increasingly polarising views on human rights, many other EU states have appointed special envoys on human rights, especially now considering some states are rowing back on such freedoms.
Minister Coveney said he approached Ms Zappone and asked if she would be interested in taking on the job in principle. She said she would.
Mr Coveney said he was not involved in any way in discussions on terms and conditions, but that he alone made the decision to approach her. He said he felt there was work to do in terms of freedom of expression.
Following a period of controversy, Ms Zappone decided to decline the position.
There were mistakes - Coveney
Answering a question from Fianna Fáil's Barry Cowen, Minister Coveney said he and Ms Zappone spoke in the second half of February about work she was doing for UNFPA and that she was hoping to work with them until the end of June or so. He said she was hugely involved in the Biden election campaign.
He said he would not describe them as close friends, but said they were colleagues who worked closely together on a lot of issues, including the campaign to secure the presidency of the UN Security Council.
Answering a question about when the Tánaiste found out about the appointment, Minister Coveney said Leo Varadkar was not involved in the discussions – saying he only got informed as he brought it to Cabinet. He said he did not have a detailed proposal on Ms Zappone's appointment until the summer.
Minister Coveney said there were mistakes - "we should never have a situation where the Taoiseach learns something for the first time at Cabinet" - and he apologised for that.
He said he was bringing a lot of memos to Cabinet that day, 27 July. Mr Coveney said that in the usual build-up to a Cabinet meeting, there are discussions and for whatever reason, the appointment of Katherine Zappone, which he did not see as a very big deal, did not come up between the party leaders and their teams, and he said it should have.
"The Taoiseach raised it at Cabinet, the appointment was approved and I rang him afterwards and said it shouldn't have happened."
It was in the Cabinet memo but it just wasn't spotted, he added.
Mr Coveney said he did not actually have to bring the matter to Cabinet - referencing the appointment of a special envoy to the Sahel, Ken Thompson, that didn't go to Government at all. He said he felt the appointment of Ms Zappone was a very positive story, but added "we didn’t lay the groundwork properly and...that shouldn't have happened".
He said that he and Katherine Zappone never spoke about money - he asked his Secretary General to speak to her about that, and they used the model of Ken Thompson's remuneration.
As to lobbying, Mr Coveney said he could honestly say he was not lobbied by Ms Zappone for the role. She simply said, "if there's anything I can do to help your team' (now that she'd be living in New York), she'd be happy to do that, either professionally or personally".
Mr Coveney said the conversation was about wishing her luck in the move.
On the reception in the Merrion Hotel, Mr Coveney said he got a text informing him about it, but that he did not get a formal invitation and he was not even in the country. He said afterwards it became a big issue, and there was a lot of regret about that. He said he had no knowledge around that event whatsoever.
'Understood the anger'
Minister Coveney said he understood the anger of people who have made extraordinary sacrifices during Covid restrictions.
In response to a question by Sinn Féin TD Sorca Clarke, about whether the role had been tainted by the reception at the Merrion Hotel hosted by Katherine Zappone, Minister Coveney said "absolutely it had".
He said he was happy for a review of the appointment of special envoys to take place and that it was not a party-political matter.
The appointments were generally made by ministers essentially head-hunting people, he said.
Minister Coveney said he believes a new system should be put in place to organise the selection of special envoys that would require all-party consultations.
Mr Coveney said the timing of the announcement made sense as other ambassadorial appointments were also being made at the Cabinet meeting.
He did not see the appointment of Ms Zappone as a reward for her previous work with the Fine Gael-led government.
Minister Coveney said he believed the controversy was merely around the fact that Ms Zappone was a former politician.
He said there were 13 special envoys sent around the world lobbying for the Irish Government's bid for the presidency of the UN Security Council and he said none of them were as qualified as Ms Zappone for the job.
Answering a question by Social Democrats TD Gary Gannon, Mr Coveney said there was no template in existence for the appointment of a special envoy.
Minister Coveney said Tánaiste Leo Varadkar was only informed along with other Fine Gael ministers an hour before the Cabinet about Ms Zappone's appointment.
Mr Coveney said he told Mr Varadkar a few days before that they were looking into whether Ms Zappone would be made a special envoy.
Mr Coveney said he did not even know the Merrion event was going on and that none of his staff was there.
He said he was in Africa at the time of the event, so he was not thinking about it.
He said he got a text from Ms Zappone that was a banner a freeze-frame about the event, but he "kind of ignored it" as his focus was on other issues, as he was in Africa.
Mr Coveney said he saw no connection between the event at the Merrion and the appointment of the role, as the matter had been almost finalised long before the event.
'Considerable public concern and controversy'
Speaking before the meeting, Committee Cathaoirleach Charlie Flanagan TD said: "The recent decision by Government to appoint a Special Envoy for Freedom of Expression generated considerable public concern and controversy.
"The committee shares this concern and welcomes this engagement with the minister to discuss such roles, including the thinking behind the appointment of envoys, the qualifications, experience and skills required, and the processes and procedures involved.
Deputy Flanagan added: "The meeting also provides a timely opportunity for the committee to get an update from the minister on the unfolding situation in Afghanistan including details on Ireland's recent emergency evacuation operation and the current assistance being provided to Irish citizens and residents still in Afghanistan."
Earlier, Fianna Fáil TD Barry Cowen said the committee would be seeking clarification on how and why the appointment of Katherine Zappone as special envoy for Freedom of Opinion and Expression went as far as it did.
The TD told RTÉ's Drivetime he would not have thought that there is a need for a special envoy for Freedom of Opinion and Expression, saying there is adequate competency and professionalism within the Department of Foreign Affairs, which was successful in the way it managed to win the seat on the UN Security Council.
He described the decision to nominate her in the first place as bizarre, "let alone the manner in which that nomination was made".
He said: "I thought it was more bizarre thereafter for the Cabinet to approve that appointment."