The Tánaiste, the ex-minister and the texts from the Piglet: Fresh Merriongate fallout piles pressure on Varadkar and Coveney
September 02 2021 02:30 AM
THE Government has been plunged into a fresh crisis over the botched appointment of Katherine Zappone as a special envoy and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar’s attendance at the former minister’s party at the Merrion Hotel.
In an extraordinary move, Mr Varadkar was forced to release text messages he sent to Ms Zappone and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney relating to the controversy, which has dragged on for five weeks.
The decision to release the texts came after Mr Coveney revealed he texted the Tánaiste about the appointment, more than a week before he brought a memo to cabinet, which blindsided Taoiseach Micheál Martin.
However, Mr Coveney told a Foreign Affairs Committee hearing he deleted the text exchange, which sparked a warning to ministers from the Taoiseach to keep their messages. Mr Coveney is now facing being re-called to face the committee.
Meanwhile, the Tánaiste’s messages revealed Ms Zappone first told him about her appointment on July 16, while texting him from the Piglet Wine Bar in Temple Bar.
“I was expecting to hear from Simon C about my appointment as Special Envoy for Human Rights and Lgbtq+ issues. Have you heard anything?” she asked. She also inquired if he would be attending her party.
Mr Varadkar said he did not know about the appointment. He said he would attend her party, but asked if it was “definitely legal”. Ms Zappone said the hotel assured her it was.
Cabinet minsters are concerned the latest twist in the long-running saga will overshadow the launch of their Housing For All plan today.
Last night, Taoiseach Micheál Martin was forced to warn ministers they must maintain records of their communications after revelations that Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney deleted text messages.
In a statement through a spokesperson on the latest twist in the MerrionGate controversy, the Taoiseach said the Government’s ICT policy will be reiterated to ministers.
“Policy states that best practice is for government ministers and officials to maintain records of communications concerning official matters of enduring organisational interest. We all have obligations under the FOI act, and the ICT policy will be reiterated,” the Taoiseach’s spokesperson said.
Mr Coveney claimed he deleted texts he sent Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Katherine Zappone about her controversial appointment as a UN Special Envoy and her Merrion Hotel party because he was concerned about his phone being hacked.
This was after he first claimed he deleted messages because his phone did not have enough data to store them.
Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe also admitted he deletes texts messages from his phone during an interview on RTÉ Radio’s One’s Today with Claire Byrne.
“I don’t like to be in a position that my phone is always full of text messages that I have to respond back to, and when I deal with something, at times, I do delete it,” Mr Donohoe said.
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar released a series of text message exchanges between Mr Coveney and Ms Zappone yesterday afternoon, along with a statement.
Mr Varadkar revealed he first learned of the appointment from Ms Zappone, who texted him about it on July 16. Three days later he texted Mr Coveney to ask about the envoy job ahead of attending Ms Zappone’s Merrion Hotel party. Mr Coveney told him a 12-month contract was being finalised
The Tánaiste’s decision to release the messages followed an appearance by Mr Coveney at the Oireachtas Foreign Affairs Committee.
Mr Coveney revealed he had texted Mr Varadkar about the appointment of Ms Zappone as a special envoy more than a week before he brought a memo to Cabinet on the proposal.
However, he said he deleted the text messages.
Last night, Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Charlie Flanagan said there are “inconsistencies” in Mr Coveney’s testimony to the committee and he has sought clarity.
The former justice minister said he had contacted Mr Coveney’s office requesting “clarification on behalf of members of the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee and seeking clarification in respect of apparent inconsistencies on evidence and timelines”.
Mr Coveney refused to answer any questions about his practice of deleting text messages and whether he deleted texts related to the Zappone appointment after the submission of Freedom of Information requests.
Sinn Féin TD John Brady said Mr Coveney and Mr Varadkar need to appear before the Foreign Affairs Committee to answer further questions on the controversy.
Mr Brady said his party had written to the Information Commissioner seeking clarity on the position around the deletion of Government records.
He noted that under the Freedom of Information Act it would be an offence to delete messages after FOI requests are submitted. The Act states: “Where an FOI request has been made in respect of a record, a person who without lawful excuse and with intention to deceive destroys or materially alters a record shall be guilty of an offence.”
Fianna Fáil Senator and Foreign Affairs Committee member Catherine Ardagh said the texts released by the Tánaiste appear to contradict Mr Coveney’s evidence to the committee, and called for a clarification.
“The texts released today certainly appear to contradict the minister’s answers to the committee, which is disappointing. The minister should provide a clarification in light of the texts released,” she said.
Mr Coveney’s spokesperson refused to answer questions about the hacking of his phone, including whether he had notified An Garda Síochána or other authorities.