Republic of Ireland news

Memo sent to Taoiseach's office did contain Katherine Zappone's name, Leo Varadkar says

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar. Picture by Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Dominic McGrath, PA

Leo Varadkar said that the memo sent to the Taoiseach’s office the night before a Cabinet meeting did include Katherine Zappone’s name as a special envoy.

The Tánaiste defended his decision to raise the issue days before his party colleague Simon Coveney faces a motion of no-confidence in the Dáil.

However, Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath denied her name was included in the memo sent to Micheál Martin’s desk.

Mr Varadkar denied his comments contradicted those of his Fianna Fáil Cabinet colleague.

“We’re actually both right but let me clarify, the memo given to Taoiseach and Cabinet ministers on the morning of the Cabinet did not have the names of the ambassadors and special envoys,” he said.

“However a memo was sent the night before to the Taoiseach’s office, at secretary general level, from the Secretary Gen of Foreign Affairs to the Secretary of the Taoiseach, which did have the names of all the ambassadors and the special envoy, Katherine Zappone, and that was entered the night before.

“That’s not new, by the way, that was said at the committee last week so that’s not new information and it also doesn’t particularly matter because the responsibility was on Simon Coveney as minister and me as party leader to flag this politician to politician.

“That’s where the error was made and we apologised for that several weeks ago.”

Mr Varadkar denied he was throwing Mr Martin under the bus and said the crisis would have been averted if he and Mr Coveney “did their job properly”.

In a statement, Mr Martin reiterated that he was not told about the appointment before the Cabinet in late July.

He also said he was not alerted at the leaders' meeting the night before Cabinet, saying he was first made aware of the appointment when the memo was circulated at the meeting.

Mr Varadkar said he, Mr Coveney and Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe have apologised to their party for the scandal it has caused.

Speaking on the morning of Fine Gael’s think-in, taking place in Trim, Co Meath, Mr Varadkar said the parliamentary party should have been talking about the “enormous successes”, including the vaccination programme.

“Instead of talking about those things over the summer people were focusing on errors made by senior Fine Gael politicians, including me,” he added.

Mr Varadkar also said that there should be a “refresh” of the Republic of Ireland’s freedom of information law in the wake the Ms Zappone controversy.

The Tánaiste also said today that his party would emerge united after a difficult few weeks and that he saw himself leading his party into the next general election.

Mr Varadkar accepted that mistakes had been made in the handling of the row over the former minister’s short-lived appointment to a special envoy role.

Mr Varadkar said the last time the Freedom of Information legislation was updated was in 2015, adding that the world of communication has moved on since then.

Questions have been asked about the government’s handling of freedom of information requests, after Foreign Affairs minister Simon Coveney admitted to having deleted text messages he exchanged with Mr Varadkar from his phone before Freedom of Information requests were submitted by journalists.

A series of requests seeking copies of correspondence between the pair were made by reporters and politicians after the appointment of Ms Zappone to the UN special envoy role was agreed by Cabinet in July.

“People use WhatsApp groups to have conversations, to do things that we’re used to doing in conversations,” he added.

“People receive any number of electronic messages and they don’t even know they have, direct messages on Facebook, on Twitter, on Instagram.

“I don’t think all of that change in the way people communicate has been fully considered and we need much better procedures so that information is released to the public and to journalists.

“There’s no doubt that texts relating to government business is a public record.

“There was a time when in an office you might get 10, 20 or 100 letters a day.

“Now you could get tens of thousands of emails generated by a campaign that people never people never see.

“There is a big change in the volume of the method of communication in recent years and we need to make sure that FOI covers that.

“But not in any sense to rollback on Freedom of Information to make sure that things are fully captured, and I don’t think things have been fully captured to date.”

A Sinn Féin no-confidence motion in Mr Coveney is set to come before the Dáil in the coming days.

Minister for Business, Employment and Retail Damien English said he has “total confidence” in both senior ministers.

“They have served our party and the country extremely well for a long time now,” he added.

“I felt this issue was well dealt with.”

Minister of State Hildegarde Naughton agreed, saying: “I have complete confidence in the leadership of Fine Gael.

“Simon Coveney has led Ireland through one of the biggest existential crisis that we have faced, Brexit, and ensured that our interests are represented at EU level.

“I can assure you there is great collegiality at Cabinet.”

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