The Government’s top ranking civil servant has said he did not inform the Taoiseach that Katherine Zappone had been proposed for a UN envoy job as he assumed he already knew.
Martin Fraser, the Secretary General at the Department of the Taoiseach, said he was formally notified that Ms Zappone was in line for the special envoy role the night before Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney presented her name to Cabinet for approval at the end of July.
Giving evidence to the joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, Mr Fraser said he did not mention her name to Micheál Martin before the meeting because he “wrongly assumed” he already knew.
During his committee appearance, Mr Fraser was also repeatedly challenged about leaks from Cabinet and how they were being investigated.
With reference to one high-profile recent leak — of the Mother and Baby Home Report — he said he was “not optimistic” about ever identifying who was responsible.
In regard to Ms Zappone, he said procedures should have seen the Taoiseach informed of the planned appointment by a relevant minister ahead of Cabinet.
“The process should have involved a minister alerting the Taoiseach and I assumed the Taoiseach had been alerted, so it wasn’t an active decision on my part not to tell the Taoiseach,” he said.
“It was an assumption on my part that the Taoiseach was aware, it was a wrong assumption, but that was my assumption.”
The appointment of the former children’s minister as UN envoy for freedom of expression and LGBTQ+ rights triggered a major political controversy and led to a Dáil vote of confidence in Mr Coveney for his handling of the affair — a vote he survived.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs faced criticism for failing to inform Mr Martin of the proposed appointment before presenting it to him and other ministers at a Cabinet meeting in July.
Amid the furore, Ms Zappone ultimately decided not to take on the role.
Mr Fraser said a memo had been circulated on the Friday from the Department of Foreign Affairs alerting Cabinet that proposed diplomatic appointments would be brought forward for approval at the meeting on Tuesday, but he said that memo did not include names.
He said Ms Zappone’s name was on an updated memo he received on Monday evening by email. Mr Fraser said that was in line with standard procedure.
During the committee meeting, Mr Fraser said he could not recall if he had been told informally that Ms Zappone had been proposed as the envoy prior to receiving the memo confirming it.
He explained that the issue was not a “big thing” at that stage and was not at the top of his priority list.
“I’m not saying it’s a trivial thing on its own merits,” he told the committee.
“All I’m saying to you is it wasn’t a big item in my mind. (It was) a 41-item agenda at Cabinet, I probably get 80 emails a day, there’s all sorts of stuff going on, it’s the last week of the Dail (before recess) – this was nowhere near the top of things that I was thinking about.
“Always with something like this, things happened afterwards, a series of things happened afterwards, we all know what they were, that made the thing bigger and bigger and bigger.
“With hindsight with a thing like this, it’s harder to maybe understand why it wasn’t seen as a big deal at the time.”
Mr Fraser’s appointment as Ireland’s next ambassador to the UK was approved at the same Cabinet meeting where Ms Zappone’s role was confirmed.
During exchanges with Sinn Féin committee members John Brady TD and senator Niall O Donnghaile, Mr Fraser was pressed on the leaking of the appointment of Ms Zappone from Cabinet.
The senior civil servant said he had not been tasked to investigate that leak and declined to answer several questions about the issue.
However, Mr Fraser confirmed he had investigated a previous Cabinet leak — concerning the report into mother and baby homes.
He said he had not discovered who was responsible for that leak and was not optimistic about doing so.
“I was asked to investigate that leak and, to be honest with you, I wish people wouldn’t leak from Cabinet, of course I do,” Mr Fraser said.
“However, I was asked to investigate that, I haven’t been able to find out who did it. I’m not optimistic.”
Mr Fraser later added: “It’s very hard to find out who does these things, but the people who do it know who they are and so do the people who receive the stuff but it’s very hard for a third party to find out in any of these things.
“Now I haven’t been asked to investigate the latest event (Ms Zappone’s appointment).”