Leo Varadkar denies Zappone controversy is a ‘distraction’ as Taoiseach under pressure to address texts
57 mins ago
© Gareth Chaney/Collins Leo Varadkar and Katherine Zappone
Leo Varadkar has denied that the controversy surrounding the appointment of Katherine Zappone is distracting Government business.
When asked if he or Minister Simon Coveney should re-consider their positions in Cabinet, he said: “I don’t think it is is causing distraction for Government.”
Mr Varadkar was speaking to reporters in Newry, Co Down this morning after he published private text messages between him and Katherine Zappone and Foreign Affairs Minister Coveney.
He also said the the first time he learned of Katherine Zappone being appointed to Special Envoy was when she contacted him by text on July 16 – five days before the event at the Merrion hotel and 11 days before her appointment was brought to Cabinet for approval.
Fianna Fáil TD Barry Cowen said he was sacked by the Taoiseach as Agriculture Minister because he was told that the controversy surrounding his drink-driving ban almost five years ago was distracting from the important work of the Government.© Gareth Chaney/Collins Barry Cowen TD during a Government Cabinet meeting at Dublin Castle, Dublin
He said: “All I’d say is during the issues concerning that 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 that this [Merriongate] is getting in the way of very important Government business too,” he told RTÉ.
The Laois-Offaly TD said it’s up to the Taoiseach now to make the next move.
He said: “He [The Taoiseach] needs to acknowledge the contents of those texts that places him in the invidious position of having been told some weeks ago that Fine Gael Ministers were only aware of this issue on the day of the Cabinet meeting.”
Mr Cowen said that while he accepts Micheál Martin has said that no texts should be deleted if they contain Government business, he believes he needs to “acknowledge” the content of those texts.
He said he did not allude to the “startling information” within the texts, “the amount of knowledge that was known by the parties involved” and that a contract and agreement had been reached with Ms Zappone while no one else was aware of it.
Leo Varadkar said he believes he has the support of his Fine Gael party and said he doesn’t believe the matter is a distraction.
He also denied that the issue is “overshadowing” Government business but admitted it was “a shadow.”
Taoiseach Michéal Martin and Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien will later launch the Government’s plan to tackle the housing crisis.
The Tanáiste said: “Just to say from my point of view, I think I’ve dealt with this matter.
“I set out very clearly what my involvement was in the appointment which did not take place at the end of the day and I’ve published all the records that I have which I believe verify my account.
“I was only in contact with Simon Coveney on one occasion about this matter and that was essentially the query that you see [in text messages].
“And as you can see from the text message he informed me that a memo would go to Cabinet.
“That is the normal way these things are done and it did go to Cabinet, it was on the agenda the Friday before the meeting..”
Mr Varadkar said he and Minister Coveney had acknowledged mistakes were made in the appointment of Zappone as it was “politically sensitive” given she was a former Cabinet Minister.
He said it is his understanding that Minister Coveney will offer further clarification after he told an Oireachtas Committee on Tuesday that he had deleted text messages because his phone had previously been hacked.
The Tanáinste said he was not contacted by an Freedom of Information Officer to check his phone for any records about the appointment of Katherine Zappone as Special Envoy.
After Mr Varadkar released the private texts on Wednesday, it was pointed out by journalists that they were told by Mr Varadkar’s officials that no such messages existed when they made requests under the Freedom of Information Act.
Mr Varadakr said he was on annual leave at the time of the requests and wasn’t contacted by the FOI officer – who he said no longer works at his Department.
He described it as “an honest oversight” and said he released the text messages himself as he was asked at a press conference on Tuesday whether he still had them following Minister Coveney’s revelation that he had deleted texts.