At the height of the most severe health and housing crises in the state’s history, one might be surprised to find that the topic presently dominating political discourse in Ireland is the attempted appointment of former minister Katherine Zappone as a temporary UN envoy on LGBTI+ rights. However, it would be wrong to dismiss this controversy as unimportant. The appointment of Zappone to a position that may well have been created for her, along with the attempt of senior ministers to skirt Freedom of Information (FOI) requests regarding the issue, points to an unacceptable culture of hostility towards transparency at the heart of this government.
When in July of this year it first came to light that Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney had appointed his former government colleague Katherine Zappone to a position as an UN envoy, the government was quick to respond to concerns of cronyism with a defence of her suitability for the role. It is not Zappone’s suitability for the role that is in question, but rather the manner in which she was appointed to it – which included neither public advertisement nor competition for the position. While it is true that ministers do have the right to appoint individuals to such positions on their own recommendation, the fact that Coveney and Zappone were government colleagues only one year prior surely constitutes a serious conflict of interest which no ethically-run institution should allow. The news that Zappone had been informed of the possibility of her taking up this role prior to it being drafted by the Department of Foreign Affairs represents a further ethical failure, suggesting that it was created specifically for the former minister – a notion seemingly justified by the fact that the position remains vacant with little sign of any new appointee. Indeed, Taoiseach Mícheál Martin’s subsequent announcement that all future envoys will be chosen by open competition is in essence an admission that Zappone’s appointment was unethical and cannot be repeated.
“It is important that the Taoiseach’s call for lessons to be learnt is not allowed to conclude this embarrassing chapter of the present coalition’s time in government.”
It is important that the Taoiseach’s call for lessons to be learnt is not allowed to conclude this embarrassing chapter of the present coalition’s time in government. The attempted appointment of Zappone by her former colleagues to a well-paid position is deeply unethical in itself. Even more concerning is the utter contempt demonstrated in recent weeks by senior government ministers to the most basic principles of transparency one would expect in democratic government. The comfort with which ministers have used frankly absurd defences of their behaviour also points towards an equally damning contempt for their own constituents.
While the botched appointment is itself an embarrassing political scandal, the revelation that Minister Coveney deleted an exchange of messages on his phone between himself and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar regarding the appointment represents a serious threat to the public’s right to access information. The idea that one of the most senior ministers in government would delete information relating to a position funded by the public, in full knowledge that it could be relevant to any later FOI request regarding the role, is unacceptable. It seems that there is a culture of hostility toward transparency in Leinster House.
What is perhaps most galling here is Coveney’s own admission while under question by a Dáil committee that although he regularly deletes messages on his phone in the interest of security, he would never delete “government business”. This is patently absurd, as it seems the Minister is now claiming that while he would delete less important information for security purposes, he would refuse to do so with information he himself regards as more security sensitive. Such nonsensical excuses for ministers’ misbehaviour ought to seriously concern anyone who cares for transparency in government. The notion that ministers can decide for themselves what does and does not count as “government business” and can therefore be deleted is frankly dangerous. Equally, the fact that the government is so comfortable with such obviously absurd excuses for its misbehaviour suggests that ministers have little regard for the intelligence of their own constituents, who were clearly not expected to care about the appointment. This points towards a dismissive attitude towards the public among senior government members that is unfortunately of no surprise, given the nature of previous controversies such as Golfgate or Zappone’s Merrion Hotel event.
“In a more functional republic, one might expect a resignation to follow.”
Similarly dubious excuses for not providing information on Zappone’s appointment have dogged this entire saga. For example, Tánaiste Varadkar’s department initially claimed not to possess text messages between himself and Zappone before then releasing them. Similarly, Minister Coveney has attempted to justify his deleted texts by referring to a phone hacking of which other members of government (including the Taoiseach) have no recollection. This naturally raises very serious questions regarding transparency in government. How many FOI requests have been refused in the past for lack of records when the information was in fact available? Equally, how many requests have been refused because the relevant information was deliberately deleted? While it appears Minister Coveney has come just short of breaching the 2014 Freedom of Information Act in this instance, his actions clearly contradict the spirit of the law and reveal a shocking disrespect for transparency in government. In a more functional republic, one might expect a resignation to follow.
Ironically, it is this reluctance of senior ministers to provide information clearly that has allowed a controversy about typical political cronyism to grow into one about transparency in government and the public’s right to access information. Free access to information is integral to any democracy and the degree to which this issue has captured the public’s attention is therefore encouraging. Yet, without disciplinary action against those who contributed to this episode, there is a risk that departments will be emboldened to mistreat FOI requests further in the future. It is therefore imperative that transparency in politics be taken seriously, as failure to do so now could have long-reaching consequences for the public’s relationship with the government.