Simon Coveney has insisted that Katherine Zappone did not lobby him for a job, as he appeared before an Oireachtas committee to take questions on the special envoy row.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs on Tuesday told members of the Oireachtas Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee that he had spoken to officials in his department about a potential role for the former children’s minister as part of Ireland’s broader team at the UN in New York before her appointment as special envoy on freedom of opinion and expression.
The former children’s minister stepped back from the position after a storm arose around the manner of her appointment.
“Katherine Zappone stepped down and left politics last summer. She moved to live full-time in New York. She reached out to me last summer and in a brief conversation mentioned that she would be available to help in any way she could in our work at the UN,” Mr Coveney said in his opening statement.
“Katherine Zappone and I spoke now and again as former colleagues do. I remember, for example, speaking to her the morning of the US presidential election result.
“In February of this year we spoke and Katherine Zappone told me of work she was doing in the UN system. At no point in the conversation did I consider that she was lobbying me for a specific job.
“Following on from that conversation, however, I reflected on the fact that Katherine Zappone was a former Irish minister, had been heavily involved in our Security Council campaign, had campaigned all her life on issues of equality and was now living in New York.
“Late in February, on the 24th of February, I met with my Secretary General to review our first months on the Security Council.
“At the end of that meeting I asked him for his view on whether Katherine Zappone could be of any use to our team in New York given the nature of the work we were involved in. He told me he would reflect on it.”
Mr Coveney said that the creation of a special envoy role was inspired by what he called “an increasingly polarised debate on human rights internationally”.
“There is a significant pushback against the very definition of human rights in certain states,” the Minister told the committee.
“In light of this, officials in my department recommended a role with a broad mandate, focusing on freedom of expression. The department believed this would provide enhanced capacity for high-level engagement on established Irish human rights priorities, including the human rights of LGBTI+ persons, civil society space, freedom of the media and freedom of association.
“I approached Katherine Zappone and asked if she’d be interested in taking this role in principle. She said she would and I handed the process back to my Secretary General. I was not involved at any point in discussions around terms and conditions, which isn’t unusual.
“As Minister for Foreign Affairs, I made the decision to ask Katherine Zappone if she would consider the role of special envoy. That was on the basis of my department’s view that there was a substantive body of work to do to advance Ireland’s priorities in the areas of freedom of opinion and expression.”
Ms Zappone would have earned up to €15,000 per year plus expenses for the role, which would have involved around 50 days’ work each year.
The appointment was criticised by opposition parties, who accused the Government of cronyism and a lack of due process in the appointment.
An event at the Merrion Hotel in Dublin, hosted by Ms Zappone and attended by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar six days before her appointment, caused a political storm and led to a clarification of pandemic rules around outdoor hospitality.
Mr Coveney said that special envoys have been used by the Irish Government “over many years to advance specific government priorities”.
We remain strongly committed to assisting those requiring ongoing consular support in Afghanistan
Speaking about the situation in Afghanistan, Mr Coveney also said that the Government is “strongly committed” to assisting Irish citizens still in the country.
“There are many in Ireland today with deep concerns for family members, friends and colleagues who remain in Afghanistan,” he said.
“I can give full assurance that the overall consular effort is continuing and we remain strongly committed to assisting those requiring ongoing consular support in Afghanistan,” Mr Coveney added.
“We are liaising with partners, including those who have a presence on the ground, to advise on safe options for remaining Irish citizens and dependants who wish to do so to leave the country in the period ahead. We will also continue to provide guidance to people who have a right to Irish residency who are in Afghanistan.”