Give me a crash course in... the Katherine Zappone controversy

Row about her appointment as special envoy to the UN has damaged Coalition’s credibility

Katherine Zappone: the former minister announced on August 4th thatshe would not take the special envoy job after more than a week of political pressure. Photograph: Damien Eagers

Who is Katherine Zappone and why is she in the news?
US-born Katherine Zappone is a former Independent TD who served as minister for children in the previous Fine Gael-led minority government. A long-time human rights and LGBT+ activist, Zappone, along with her late wife Ann Louise Gilligan, was one of the key campaigners in the Marriage Equality referendum. She was also involved in Ireland's successful bid to win a seat on the United Nations Security Council during her time as minister. She moved to New York after losing her Dáil seat last year.

At the last full Cabinet meeting before the summer break, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney brought a plan to appoint her as a special envoy on freedom of opinion and expression to the UN. The role would have involved liaising with the UN and around 60 days’ work per year.

So what's the problem with that?
Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan didn't know about the plan in advance, which was a break from normal Cabinet procedures and caused tension between the Coalition parties. The Opposition were quick to claim "cronyism" due to the planned appointment of a former minister to a €15,000-a-year job without an open competition. The Taoiseach tried to draw a line under the saga, saying there should be "perspective", insisting it was not among the "key" decisions that had been made at the Cabinet meeting, and suggesting that "we move on now".

Did that happen?
Eh, no. At pretty much the same time the Taoiseach was making his comments, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar revealed in a radio interview that Zappone had approached Coveney about the work, which raised further questions about the plan. It took a further two days for the Coveney to comment on the circumstances of the appointment, and when he did it was in a tetchy interview on RTÉ Radio's News at One. He denied the role had been created for Zappone, saying she did approach him about work she was doing in New York last year, but it was later that officials in his department drew up a plan to have a special envoy. Coveney confirmed that no one else had been considered for the role.


The Irish Times revealed a row within Fine Gael over the leaking of the appointment and how the Taoiseach hadn’t been given the heads-up on it. A senior Minister was subject to a “sting” operation by one of their junior counterparts to reveal the identity of the leaker.

But that wasn't the end of it, was it?
Absolutely not. On August 4th the Irish Independent reported that Zappone had hosted an outdoor function in the upmarket Merrion Hotel for about 50 people on July 21st, and Varadkar had been in attendance. The hotel and the Government has insisted the gathering was within Covid-19 regulations, to the point that the Attorney General advised that certain outdoor events of up to 200 people are permitted. The Opposition were quick to capitalise, contrasting Zappone's event with the ban on Ccommunions and Cconfirmations.

Zappone, meanwhile, announced she would not take the special envoy job after more than a week of political pressure.

So what's next?
A can of worms was opened, with the likes of the Restaurants Association of Ireland (RAI) unsurprisingly wondering if its members can host events of up to 200 people outdoors.