FOREIGN Affairs Minister Simon Coveney is facing fresh controversy over the Katherine Zappone ‘Merriongate’ affair after admitting to deleting crucial text messages.
Mr Coveney last night blamed fears over his phone being hacked for the deletion of text exchanges with Ms Zappone and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar as Fianna Fáil backbenchers heavily criticised the senior Coalition minister.
Mr Coveney told the Oireachtas Foreign Affairs Committee he did not retain texts for storage reasons, before his spokesperson later said: “The minister’s phone has been hacked in the past and as a result he regularly clears his phone.”
Mr Coveney also admitted that Ms Zappone, his former Cabinet colleague, texted him to invite him to her controversial Merrion Hotel party, despite his spokesperson, former Newstalk broadcaster Chris Donoghue, previously claiming Mr Coveney did not receive an invitation to the event and had first learned of it in the Irish Independent.
Mr Donoghue last night admitted this had been an error on his part.
“I knew the minister didn’t go to the Merrion event, as he wasn’t in Ireland on the day, but I didn’t know he’d been invited to the event and had ignored the invite. That was my mistake,” he said.
The outdoor social occasion on July 21, which was attended by 50 people including the Tánaiste, came six days before Ms Zappone’s controversial appointment as a UN Special Envoy for Freedom of Expression – a role she later relinquished following public furore over the Merrion event which forced the Government to clarify Covid guidelines on outdoor gatherings.
Mr Coveney also disclosed to the committee for the first time that he had told the Tánaiste “a few days” before the Merrion event about the UN special envoy role.
He said Mr Varadkar had texted him to say he would be seeing Ms Zappone as she was coming to Dublin.
“He asked was there anything that he needed to know and I texted him back to say we are looking at a concept of a special envoy role in the area of LGBT and freedom of expression space, that was the only conversation,” Mr Coveney said.
Insisting that Mr Varadkar had “no act, hand or part” in Ms Zappone’s appointment, Mr Coveney later indicated to the committee that he had deleted text message exchanges with Mr Varadkar and Ms Zappone relating to the role.
Asked by Sinn Féin TD John Brady if these texts would be made available under Freedom of Information, Mr Coveney said: “I don’t hold text messages for long periods of time because of data on my phone.”
On the text invite he received from Ms Zappone, he said: “I don’t have the exact date that I got that text – but I remember seeing it after that event because of the furore around it.”
Mr Coveney earlier described it as a “banner, freeze frame of the event” and there was “no formal request coming to me in terms of attending”. He was in Africa at the time on Government business.
Three Fianna Fáil committee members last night told the Irish Independent of their concerns about Mr Coveney’s latest disclosures. “The appointment always had the appearance of a divvy-up. Unfortunately today’s meeting heard enough to confirm that,” said Barry Cowen TD.
Senator Catherine Ardagh said it “beggars belief that important text messages related to work matters would be deleted”. Kildare North TD James Lawless said: “Modern phones have ample storage without having to frequently delete. I would also question to what extent is there an obligation on those subject to FOI to retain such information.”
Mr Coveney earlier insisted Ms Zappone had not lobbied for the appointment.
Mr Varadkar last night said he did not recall having any text message conversations with Mr Coveney over the Merrion event but would have to check.