Katherine Zappone declines special envoy role after criticism
4th August 2021
Katherine Zappone has said she will not be taking up the role of UN special envoy on freedom of expression, following days of criticism and pressure from opposition parties.© Niall Carson Opposition TDs have compared a private outdoor function at the Merrion Hotel, hosted by Katherine Zappone (Niall Carson/PA)
It comes after a week of controversy that culminated in revelations that Ms Zappone hosted a private outdoor function for friends and former colleagues at the luxury Merrion Hotel six days before her appointment, which was attended by Tanaiste Leo Varadkar.
Opposition parties alleged this amounted to a breach of coronavirus restrictions, accusing them of a repeat of the Golfgate controversy in August last year.
The Government later issued a statement, saying the Attorney General had advised them no breach had occurred.
In a statement issued to media outlets, former minister for children Ms Zappone said on Wednesday: “While I am honoured to have been appointed by the Government to be the Special Envoy on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, it is clear that criticism of the appointment process has impacted the legitimacy of the role itself.
“It is my conviction that a Special Envoy role can only be of real value to Ireland and to the global community if the appointment is acceptable to all parties.
“For this reason, I have decided not to accept this appointment, and I have communicated my decision to the Minister for Foreign Affairs.”
Mr Varadkar issued a statement late on Wednesday evening, saying he accepted that mistakes were made in the appointment of Ms Zappone and that he regrets “the controversy it’s caused”.
He said he was “confident” that coronavirus regulations were not breached by his attendance at the Merrion Hotel event.
The Tanaiste said: “On July 21st I attended an outdoor gathering on the grounds of the Merrion Hotel at the invitation of former Minister Dr Katherine Zappone.
“I confirmed in advance directly with her, and with the hotel management on arrival, that the event was compliant with Covid regulations.
“I was present for about 45 minutes, spoke to Dr Zappone briefly and listened to her speech before returning to work. The event took place entirely outdoors.”© Provided by PA Media Tanaiste Leo Varadkar has been called on to clarify his attendance at Katherine Zappone’s event at the Merrion Hotel (Niall Carson/PA)
He added: “Government regulations permit organised outdoor gatherings and events of up to 200 people. There were about 50 people present.
“The definition in the regulations includes social events as well as recreational, exercise, cultural, entertainment or community events.
“I am confident these regulations were not breached. This matter has been checked with the Attorney General.
“As the Government statement has already said, further updates will be made to the guidelines to ensure that people have clarity about how future organised outdoor events may operate.”
The event took place on July 21, six days before Ms Zappone was controversially appointed as UN special envoy on freedom of expression.
A report in the Irish Independent said the event involved 50 friends and former colleagues of the former minister for children, who were seated at separate tables in groups of six.
This has led opposition TDs to question whether the event was in line with Covid-19 regulations, comparing it to the infamous Golfgate controversy in August last year.
That event resulted in a series of high-profile resignations, including by a minister and a European Commissioner, after they attended a parliamentary golf club event in Clifden, Co Galway, which was deemed to have broken pandemic restrictions.
Earlier, Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald called for accountability on Ms Zappone’s appointment and for the full list of attendees at the Merrion Hotel event to be published
She tweeted: “Now we need accountability from Govt for the lack of process/procedure in this attempted appointment.
“The guest list for Merrion Hotel function must also be made public. The days of funding jobs for the boys & girls on the inside track with taxpayers’ money must come to an end.”
In a brief statement on Wednesday, the Government said: “The Government has been advised by the Attorney General that regulations provide for organised outdoor events and gatherings up to 200 people, including social, recreational, exercise, cultural, entertainment or community events.
“Further updates will be made to the guidelines to ensure that people have clarity about how organised outdoor events may operate into the future.”
The confusion seems to have arisen around discrepancies in the regulations put in place by Government, and guidelines issued to the sector by Failte Ireland, which were updated on July 23, two days after the event.
Prior to the Government’s clarification, Sinn Fein TD Matt Carthy said: “There are striking similarities, I have to say, with what took place at the Clifden hotel.
“Nobody wants to be pointing fingers. We’ve seen how that has actually eroded public confidence in the health measures that are there.
“But a standard was set following the events in Clifden. As I said, there are striking similarities in terms of the rationale and excuses that are now being put forward and that people ask the hotel for their interpretation of the public health advice.
“I don’t know what the legal basis of this event was. To me, it appears to be questionable, but the relevant authorities will make a judgment on that.”
Mr Carthy said the Tanaiste had shown “poor judgment” and called on him to clarify his attendance.
In a statement, Ms Zappone told RTE she had been “assured” by the hotel that the event was “in compliance with Government Covid-19 restrictions and guidelines”, and said all other queries should be directed to the hotel.© Provided by PA Media The Merrion Hotel, which hosted the private outdoor function (Brian Lawless/PA)
People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy said the event sounded like another “Golfgate situation”.
He said: “It seems to me that, if it is the case, and it certainly appears to be the case, that the event was organised in contravention of the rules that were then in place, at the time the event took place, well, then that’s a very serious problem.
“In effect, it’s a sort of Golfgate situation again, one year on from the last one, whereby some in society, those at the top of the political establishment, seem to think that the rules don’t really apply to them, they only apply to the little people.”
Aontu leader Peadar Toibin said it was clear that the event at the Merrion breached Covid-19 regulations, and that a precedent had been set by the Golfgate controversy.
He said: “This is a jaw-dropping mix of hypocrisy and cronyism. This is the behaviour of a ruling elite that are telling citizens ‘Do as I say and not as I do’.”
In recent days, the Government had faced growing calls to reverse its decision to appoint Ms Zappone to the envoy role.
Taoiseach Micheal Martin had admitted that there was an “oversight” in the appointment, which did not go through a public process and was said to have “blindsided” him when taken to Cabinet by Fine Gael at the final meeting before the Dail summer recess.
Mr Carthy said: “We’ve seen too many of these crony-like appointments over the course and lifetime of this Government and this is blatant cronyism at its worst.”
The Merrion Hotel issued a statement saying it has adhered to Government public health measures “at all times since the start of the pandemic”.