Her appointment to be investigated by Dáil
Leo Varadkar has questioned a Cabinet minister believed to be behind a damaging Government leak.
It comes after text message evidence was taken to the Tánaiste by a junior minister who set up an extraordinary ruse to identify the source of recent breaches of Cabinet confidentiality, the Sunday Independent can reveal.
When presented with the junior minister’s evidence, the minister concerned is understood to have denied to the Fine Gael leader he was the source of the leak — which occurred during Cabinet last week — about the appointment of Katherine Zappone to the role of UN special envoy for freedom of expression.
According to Government sources, the minister involved is said to have told Mr Varadkar he was “hurt” and “wounded” by the claim and to have described himself as “100pc loyal and a team player.”
However, there is a widespread view at the highest levels in Government he was responsible for the Zappone leak and possibly also other sensitive leaks and the matter is being taken “seriously” at Cabinet.
The latest developments in the Zappone appointment controversy come as it emerged Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney is facing an Oireachtas committee examination into the circumstances surrounding her appointment.
Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Charlie Flanagan has asked the Department of Foreign Affairs for further details around the appointment of special envoys.
Coalition backbenchers, including Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen, have been ramping up pressure this weekend.
Yesterday Mr Flanagan confirmed there was “some disquiet and discomfort in Fine Gael as in other parties” over the appointment and “this is not confined to members of the parliamentary party but across the wider organisation as well as former TDs and senators”.
Mr Flanagan said he would be open to the committee meeting this week to consider demands from Fianna Fáil and the Social Democrats to question Mr Coveney.
The latest developments mean the political controversy is likely to dominate the summer period and possibly beyond.
Following a Cabinet decision on Tuesday, Ms Zappone was appointed UN special envoy for freedom of expression, a role which will carry a salary of around €15,000 based on working 50 days a year.
However, while the Cabinet was in session the Irish Examiner broke news of the appointment on Twitter, stating incorrectly the proposal to appoint Ms Zappone was brought to Cabinet by Mr Varadkar.
Yesterday the Irish Times reported suspicions at Cabinet the leak was intended to damage both the Tánaiste and a possible successor as Fine Gael leader, Simon Coveney.
Yesterday Mr Coveney was said to be “fuming” after the extraordinary details of the ruse to unmask the Cabinet leak were revealed.
The Sunday Independent can now disclose it was a junior minister who was behind the plot to out the leaking Cabinet minister.
The Cabinet minister concerned and the junior minister discussed the Zappone appointment by text message after the Cabinet meeting ended.
The junior minister told the senior minister he had just criticised the appointment on local radio. This was a deliberate untruth. No such radio interview took place. Shortly afterwards, a journalist contacted the junior minister and said office colleagues had heard his criticism of the appointment on radio.
That information about the critical broadcast was untrue so could only have been passed to the media by the Cabinet minister.
The Sunday Independent understands the junior minister brought his evidence to the Tánaiste, Mr Varadkar.
Yesterday a Fine Gael source said: “The junior minister is someone who the senior minister thought was a friend and ally and potential supporter for the Fine Gael leadership, but is actually a ‘true Blue’ and thinks this leaking is harming the party and Government.
“This person thinks Leo has been too soft on the issue and is turning a blind eye to what the Cabinet minister is up to and wanted to prove it.”
Yesterday sources close to Mr Varadkar said he was “more disappointed than angry” when presented with the text message evidence, and asked: “What can he do about it? He can’t sack him. The Cabinet minister concerned denies it.”
It was confirmed the Cabinet minister was questioned on the leak by the Tánaiste last week.
A Fine Gael source added: “You won’t find a person who believes his denials though. Lots think he has been on manoeuvres [for leadership of Fine Gael] for a while. He has been a suspect for Cabinet leaks for a long time but really got rumbled this time.”
Government sources said the “original sin” was not the Cabinet minister’s leak but that Mr Varadkar and Mr Coveney should have ensured the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, and Fianna Fáil ministers were not “surprised” by the proposed appointment of Ms Zappone.
However, these sources added: “The leak undermined Micheál Martin, and made it look as though the Taoiseach was not in control, and it undermined Varadkar and Coveney too and Coalition relations between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. So, it is serious.”
The Zappone appointment has been heavily criticised by the opposition and has infuriated Coalition backbenchers in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
Mr Flanagan said the committee he chairs would now consider requests for Mr Coveney to answer questions.
“Our next meeting is scheduled for early September but if members request a sitting next week or earlier I am open to such a proposal,” he said.
“I have asked the Department of Foreign Affairs for a background note and briefing on the role and function of special envoys to include duties etcetera and the number appointed over the years.”
Mr Flanagan said he would assume due diligence was undertaken and full details of Ms Zappone’s package including job spec, salary, allowances and pension were all discussed and agreed by Cabinet before the appointment was made.
“I’m sure any disquiet can be assuaged by appropriate clarification,” he said. Fianna Fáil Senator Diarmuid Wilson, a member of the committee, wrote to Mr Flanagan on Thursday asking it urgently requests Mr Coveney to attend to answer questions about the appointment.
Social Democrats TD Gary Gannon has submitted a similar request, saying the appointment was “clearly timed to avoid the scrutiny of the committee” and described it as “stroke politics”.
It is understood Mr Cowen, who is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and raised concerns about the appointment, is expected to support calls for Mr Coveney to be brought before members.
His Fianna Fáil and committee colleague, Kildare North TD James Lawless, said: “It’s not at all clear what the purpose of the appointment is. She is to speak on our behalf but what exactly is she going to say? Who is she answerable to?
“There are many international issues I would like to see championed such as the decline in rule of law, press and academic freedom, and assault on democracy around the world.
"But I have no idea if this is on her agenda, or what is.”
Ms Zappone did not respond to efforts to contact her for comment.
In 2015 she said the practice of “nod and wink appointments to State boards has no place in our open, modern democracy”.