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Foreign Affairs committee chair writes to Simon Coveney over ‘inconsistencies’ as Leo Varadkar releases ‘Merriongate’ texts

- Tánaiste and Katherine Zappone discussed her controversial UN Special Envoy appointment at her Merrion Hotel party

- Taoiseach warns ministers they must keep records of their communications, after Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said he deleted text messages

- Charlie Flanagan writes to Foreign Minister demanding clarity on ‘apparent inconsistencies on evidence and timelines’

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Katherine Zappone discussed her controversial appointment as a UN Special Envoy for Freedom of Opinion and Expression at her Merrion Hotel party.

Mr Varadkar also revealed he was first told by Ms Zappone about her appointment before he texted Foreign Affair Minister ahead of the party hosted by his former cabinet colleague.

The Tánaiste has released text messages between himself and Foreign Minister Simon Coveney and Ms Zappone ahead of her appointment. Ms Zappone later relinquished the role.

Tonight, Taoiseach Micheál Martin warned his ministers they must maintain records of their communications after revelations that Mr Coveney deleted his text messages.

Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Charlie Flanagan has said there are "inconsistencies" in Simon Coveney's testimony to his committee and that he has sought clarity.

The Fine Gael TD and 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".

The text messages released on Wednesday by Mr Varadkar show the Tánaiste asked Ms Zappone if her party in the Merrion Hotel was “legal” before he attended. The former minister said the Merrion Hotel “confirmed it was compliant”.

In a statement accompanying the text message exchanges a spokesperson for the Tánaiste said he was contacted by Ms Zappone on the 16th of July as she was visiting Dublin.

“She mentioned that she could be taking up a new role as special envoy. The Tánaiste wasn’t aware of the appointment and contacted Simon Coveney about it for information as he knew he was likely to meet Ms Zappone later that week.

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“Minister Coveney confirmed that his department had been in discussions with Katherine on the role and that a memo would be brought to Cabinet prior to any appointment being made. The Tánaiste made no further inquiries about the matter.

“Ms Zappone and the Tánaiste discussed the role briefly on the 21st of July at the outdoor function in the Merrion Hotel at which he expressed his support.

“The full details of the appointment were not made available until the day of Cabinet the meeting on the 27th of July when Minister Coveney brought the proposal to the meeting.

“The Tánaiste has accepted that this should have been flagged by him to the Taoiseach and the leader of the Green Party in advance at the leaders’ meeting, the day before the cabinet meeting and an apology has been made. There should be no surprises in a coalition government,” the spokesperson added.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has warned his ministers they must maintain records of their communications after revelations that Mr Coveney deleted text messages.

In a statement through a spokesperson on the latest twist in the Merriongate controversy, Mr Martin said the Government's information and communications technology (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 [Freedom of Information] Act, and the ICT policy will be reiterated," the Taoiseach's spokesperson said.

On Mr Coveney's claim that he deleted text messages because his phone was hacked, Mr Martin's spokesperson added: “Each minister is provided with cyber security advice and each government department has cyber security arrangements which are reviewed and enhanced on an ongoing basis. It’s not the practice to reveal detailed information on these arrangements for obvious reasons of security.”

However, Mr Martin appeared to back Mr Coveney and the Tánaiste after the release of text messages that shed new light on the saga earlier on Wednesday.

“As previously stated, the procedures and process around the appointment of a UN Special Envoy on Freedom of Expression were raised by the Taoiseach at the time of the Cabinet meeting," the spokesperson said.

“There is an agreement in existence between the three coalition parties that leaders are notified of any impending appointments. That did not happen on this occasion and the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs accepted this was wrong and have apologised.”

Fianna Fáil Senator Catherine Ardagh said the texts released by the Tánaiste appear to contradict Simon Coveney's evidence to the Oireachtas Foreign Affairs 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," Ms Ardagh, a member of the committee, told Independent.ie.

A Green Party government spokesperson said tonight the handling of the appointment of Ms Zappone as a special envoy “was unsatisfactory and should have been handled in a more transparent manner”.

The spokesperson added: “Both the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs have accepted this and apologised, and Ms Zappone has decided not to take up the role. It is important that the appointment of envoys is looked at to ensure a more transparent system is put in place and that best practice is followed in future.”

The following are text messages between Mr Varadkar and Ms Zappone:

JULY 15 2021 AT 9.35PM

Leo Varadkar: You’re in Dublin

Katherine Zappone: Yep! Was going to wait till after Dail rose to contact you. Would of course love to see you, and a reminder about my reception in Merrion on next Wed, 5.30pm.- 7pm on the Terrace. If you can’t make that, we could fine another time.

Or [sunglasses emoji] to see you reception plus separate time

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JULY 16 2021 AT 9.06PM

KZ: Hi Leo, from the Piglet! I was expecting to hear from Simon C about my appointment as Special Envoy for Human Rights and Lgbtq+ issues. Have you heard anything? If you around next Wed, hope to see you and Matt!

LV: Nope.

Can make it to the Merrion

Is it definitely legal?

Probably ok. Organised outdoor gathering of fewer than 200 people?

KZ: Yes, it is 50 people outdoors and The Merrion has confirmed it is compliant

LV: See you then

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The following are text messages between Mr Varadkar and Mr Coveney:

JULY 19 2021 AT 6.44PM

LV: Hi. Seeing Katherine Zappone on Wednesday. Do you know anything about her becoming our LGBT envoy?

SC: [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

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Text messages between Mr Varadkar and Ms Zappone:

JULY 21 2021 AT 12.47PM

KZ: Just reminding you about reception this eve in The Merrion from5.30 to 7pm - I will say a few words at 6ish

Just met with Peter and Dorothy McCann [management in The Merrion Hotel] - to review protocol this eve re Covid. They will be on hand to make sure all goes smoothly.

Hope you and join us - Matt welcome too if around.

LV: Will be over. Might be until a bit after 6 though. Where in Merrion is it?

KZ: Great! I will wait for you to speak, unless you get a lot delayed.

On the Terrance - Just outside of main entrance

I will tell Peter McCann to look out for your arrival.

Thanks so much

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