Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney is set to face questions about his evidence to an Oireachtas committee after texts revealed “apparent inconsistencies” in his account of the appointment of Katherine Zappone as a UN special envoy.
Mr Coveney will face accusations that he misled the committee and there is 'deep nervousness in Government' about the affair, according to The Irish Times.
The chair of the Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan, confirmed members had been in touch seeking further clarification about Mr Coveney's account to them on Tuesday, which told of events leading up to Ms Zappone's appointment on July 27th.
“I have been in touch with his office on the matter of some apparent inconsistencies,” said Mr Flanagan.
Last night, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar publicly released texts between him and Mr Coveney, and also between him and Ms Zappone.
On Wednesday, Mr Coveney claimed he had deleted texts between himself, Mr Varadkar and Ms Zappone because his phone had previously been hacked.
“I’ve been hacked, and I’m the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence, so I think it’s prudent that I clear my phone fairly regularly and that’s what I do and that’s what I said [at the committee meeting on Tuesday],” he said.
The texts released by Mr Varadkar seemed to contradict Mr Coveney's account to the committee, in which he said the Tánaiste had not specifically referred to the prospective position.
In a text on July 19th, Mr Varadkar directly asked him about Ms Zappone being appointed to a special envoy role.
Mr Coveney had indicated to the committee the role was still being discussed at the time, and he had informed Mr Varadkar by text he “was looking at a special envoy role for her”.
However, the texts appear to suggest the decision had already been made, Mr Coveney wrote that Ms Zappone was meeting the secretary general of his department to “finalise a 12 month contract to be an Irish Govt Special Envoy... She seems very happy. I plan to have it in a memo for Government next week”.
Mr Coveney also told the committee that Ms Zappone had never lobbied for the job.
The text messages show she asked Mr Varadkar on July 16th if he had heard about her appointment.
On Wednesday, Sinn Féin TD John Brady claimed Mr Coveney had “changed his story” on why he deleted texts.
His colleague Pearse Doherty asked whether Mr Coveney had deleted the texts to avoid Freedom of Information Act requests. The legislation requires Ministers to maintain records of all communications relating to their official roles.
Meanwhile, Social Democrats TD Gary Gannon said he has written to the foreign affairs committee asking it to investigate the alleged phone hacking.
Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris has defended the actions of Mr Coveney whom he said was “only too willing” to provide clarification about the appointment of Ms Zappone as UN special envoy.
Paper work will be published by the Department of Foreign Affairs to detail the pathway to the appointment he told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland.
While the issue was one of concern, he acknowledged, there was a need to “step back” and allow Mr Coveney answer the questions raised by the Oireachtas Committee.
There needs to be a sense of perspective in this.
When asked if this was a resigning matter for Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar, Mr Harris said that the Taoiseach had made it clear that the position of the Government was that lessons had been learned.
Everybody “fully accepted” that the entire process (the appointment) could have been handled differently, he said.
Mr Coveney had volunteered the information about his text messages and would provide clarity why he had deleted texts.
Mr Harris said he was not sure that the controversy was “overshadowing” the work of Government as had been claimed by Fianna Fáil TD Barry Cowen who had pointed out earlier on Morning Ireland that he had been sacked when he was told that his controversy was providing a distraction from the work of Government.
“We need to step back here and remember what Simon Coveney was trying to do.” He denied that it was a case of the Minister for Foreign Affairs “divvying up” jobs.
“It’s important to allow the Minister to answer questions. He has admitted that the process followed was not right and apologised to the Taoiseach and the leader of the Green party.”
Mr Harris said that Mr Coveney would “robustly defend” the charge that he misled anyone. He would also provide information about the hacking of his phone. — Additional reporting from Vivienne Clarke