When Micheál Martin was leader of the opposition, he had a lot to say about Fine Gael appointments. One in particular drew his ire. “This was an insider appointment and it stinks to high heaven,” he told the Dáil on June 20, 2017, of the decision to appoint outgoing attorney general Máire Whelan to the Court of Appeal.
hat was the second time in a week he had used the word “stinks” to describe the appointment, having six days earlier told the newly elected taoiseach Leo Varadkar: “This cannot be overcome by comments such as, ‘Ah, sure, we’ll do better next time’.”
How times have changed. From the outset of the controversy over Fine Gael’s botched attempt to appoint Katherine Zappone as a UN envoy, current Taoiseach Martin has sought to consign it to the past. The day after it was agreed by the Cabinet, where he learned of it for the first time, Martin said it was “now time to move on”.
Five weeks on, with Zappone no longer in the frame for the role but with fresh revelations emerging about how she was appointed in the first place, Martin was still trying to put it behind him at the launch of the Government’s Housing For All plan.
“It is accepted the appointment of Katherine Zappone was not handled in the correct way. It is accepted that was wrong and Minister Coveney has apologised to me for that and has said that,” he said on Thursday.
“But let’s have some balance and perspective in terms of the big issues this country is facing. There is a bit of melodrama and over-dramatics about it, quite frankly.”
In Cork yesterday, Martin was promising documents to be published tomorrow will also clear up the issue, along with another appearance by Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney at the Oireachtas committee on Tuesday — a week after his disastrous outing that breathed new life into the affair.
Coveney still has to account for unanswered questions about when he deleted text messages, the hacking of his phone last year and other inconsistencies in his original account to the committee.
But Martin’s overall reaction to this controversy — or melodrama, as he would have it — has all but confirmed the Taoiseach is prepared to give a free pass to his constituency rival.
“There is such a thing as something is too big to fail,” one Fianna Fáil minister said this weekend.
Last week’s developments in the saga of an insider appointment, a private party in an exclusive five-star hotel, deleted text messages and phone hacking are not generating a groundswell of public anger. “Not one email, text or call about it,” said one Fine Gael TD. But it does highlight questionable integrity of some of our most senior politicians, and it exposes deeper fault lines within the two main coalition parties.
Another Fine Gael TD said privately that the manner in which the controversy continued to develop across the week, with Coveney’s story constantly evolving and changing, reminded them of a Malcolm Tucker line from The Thick of It: “F**k me! This is like a clown running across a minefield.”
Former rural affairs minister Michael Ring is particularly aggrieved at Coveney over a backlog in the Passport Office that has been worsened by the pandemic.
“Our summer was destroyed with passport issues, no one answering the phone, you can’t get it on the internet. Here we are telling the UN and everyone else how to run the world and we cannot run the Passport Office,” Mr Ring told the Sunday Independent this weekend.
“Simon Coveney has the responsibility to run the Passport Office. He is the minister with responsibility for foreign affairs and that’s the problem — no one is taking responsibility.
“The Passport Office should always have been an essential service. Niall Burgess is the secretary general. He can go off to France. His passport is OK when people can’t get out of the country on their holidays because they couldn’t get their passport.”
Asked to respond to the criticism of Mr Burgess, who is leaving his role in the Department of Foreign Affairs to become Ireland’s ambassador to France, and to criticism of the passport service, the department said: “Since the beginning of the year, over 325,000 passports and passport cards have been processed, printed and dispatched.
“The Passport Office have continued to prioritise medical and family emergencies. Demand since the lifting of restrictions has been very high.
“The Irish Passport Service continues to offer an extremely high level of service, particularly for adults seeking to renew their passports.
“It is 10 working days in Ireland compared with five weeks in Great Britain, 12 weeks in the United States, three weeks in Australia and 10 working days in New Zealand.”
There is a view in Fine Gael that Coveney’s global jet-setting as part of Ireland’s UN Security Council role has resulted in him failing to see the significance and potential damage of this controversy. “One of the challenges is trying to explain the seriousness of this to Simon Coveney and to stop him saying it’s not a big deal,” one ally of the minister said.
The Zappone controversy reignited last Tuesday when Coveney appeared before the Foreign Affairs Committee and was worsened when Tánaiste Varadkar took the unusual step of releasing all of his text message correspondence with Zappone about her infamous Merrion Hotel party and the UN appointment in a bid to clear up his role.
The messages dump included what seemed on the face of it a stilted exchange between the Fine Gael leader and his deputy.
“Hi. Seeing Katherine Zappone on Wednesday. Do you know anything about her becoming our LGBT envoy?” Varadkar texted to Coveney on July 19 at 6.44pm.
It would be more than four hours before Coveney would text back at 10.51pm. “Yeah, I spoke to Katherine tonight. She’s meeting Niall Burgess on Wednesday to finalise a 12 month contract to be an Irish Govt Special Envoy for ‘Freedom of Expression and Human Rights’ (with a focus on LGBT). She seems very happy. I plan to have it in memo for Govt next week, Sc,” he wrote.
It would be another eight days before Micheál Martin would find out about any of this; the structures put in place to avoid such surprises within the Coalition had apparently broken down.
But that text exchange and Varadkar’s decision to release it did serve to somewhat undermine his former rival for the top job in Fine Gael. The inevitable conclusion of some was that the wounds caused by their leadership contest four years ago have not healed.
An associate of Coveney’s insists the pair have a good relationship, but says there is a paranoia among their respective teams of advisers. “Leo and Simon have a fairly good relationship,” the associate said. “But at the end of the day this is politics: everyone’s out to save themselves.”
Perhaps more interestingly, the relationship between current and former Fine Gael ministers is definitely strained. It is not just Michael Ring, but also Coveney’s predecessor in Iveagh House, Charlie Flanagan, who cited “apparent inconsistencies” in Coveney’s testimony to the committee he chairs as a reason for calling him back in.
Flanagan could have made things easier for Coveney, his party colleague, but has pointedly chosen not to. Fianna Fáil’s committee members have revelled in making things awkward for their coalition colleagues.
Barry Cowen’s intervention on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland last Thursday was significant, mostly because it raised for the first time an issue over whether Coveney and/or Varadkar needed to resign or be sacked. Cowen acknowledged Fine Gael ministers “getting away” with things for which Fianna Fáil ministers were sacked — which he was — or over which they resigned “is something that is being said within our organisation and indeed by members of the public”.
“During the course of the issues concerning the matter and the incident for which I was held responsible, I was told that this issue was dominating the public domain and was getting in the way of government business. Some would argue this is getting in the way of very difficult government business too,” he told RTÉ.
Martin was annoyed by this to such an extent that he brought the speech he gave the Dáil on the night he sacked Cowen in July last year to the press conference launching the Housing For All plan. The two situations were not comparable, he argued.
Cowen declined to go into the Dáil to answer questions about his drink-driving ban, whereas Coveney was willing to “fully address” any lingering issues over the controversy.
Not quite. A series of questions posed to Coveney’s office in the middle of last week by this correspondent remain unanswered.
“The minister is eager to return to the committee to answer any further questions they may have. He has also asked his department to bring forward publication of all documents in advance of the committee,” Coveney’s spokesperson said last night.
Martin’s rebuke of Cowen is likely to come to a head at this Thursday’s Fianna Fáil parliamentary party think-in in Cavan. “The gloves are off now,” one backbencher warned.
Several TDs who have kept silent lately will be expected to speak out. Many wonder what Jim O’Callaghan, who has made no secret of his leadership ambitions, is thinking, given he has been silent since the chastening Dublin Bay South by-election result.
Martin will be expected to emphasise the importance of getting on with the Government’s agenda at the meeting and delivering for the people. Some TDs are expecting a ding-dong, others think the meeting will largely pass without controversy.
In New York, Katherine Zappone appears content to let her former cabinet colleagues and supposed friends expend large amounts of political capital defending her honour.
She has not responded to questions from the Sunday Independent in recent weeks.