The Irish Times view on the Zappone affair: questions of judgment

That the controversy now implicates Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has raised the stakes, and with it the determination in Fine Gael to close the story down

The controversy over the bungled appointment of Katherine Zappone to the position of Irish envoy on freedom of speech is hardly in itself the most important issue on the Government's agenda. It will make more damaging mistakes, and more costly ones. But the episode has given unflattering insights into how Government, in this case the Fine Gael side of it, does its business. And the inept mishandling of the fallout has put on display a mindset that augurs badly for bigger challenges that lie ahead.

The protagonists are still struggling to admit they did anything wrong. Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, who created the envoy position and chose Zappone to fill it but did not inform Taoiseach Micheál Martin in advance, says he "regrets" the breach of protocol and acknowledges that "mistakes were made", but cannot seem to pinpoint who might have made these mistakes.

Minister of State Colm Brophy, the one other Fine Gael figure who has deigned to answer questions on the issue, is adamant that the lessons of the past week will be learned but is at a loss to know what those lessons are. A "process" will take place to help identify those elusive lessons, he waffled.

It's worth recalling that the same Government said it would "learn the lessons" from a similar controversy last year, when it decided to overlook experienced judges to appoint the Fine Gael activist and recently-replaced attorney general Séamus Woulfe to a position on the Supreme Court.


That the Zappone affair now implicates Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has raised the stakes, and with it the determination in Government, or at least on Fine Gael's side of the Cabinet table, to close the episode down. Varadkar was among 50 attendees at an outdoor party hosted by Zappone in a five-star Dublin hotel just days before she was appointed to the envoy role.

News of that lapse in judgment – what public figure would think it a sensible idea to throw a party in a luxury hotel in the middle of a pandemic? – made it inevitable that Zappone would have to decline the envoy role, which she duly did on Wednesday.

But for Varadkar and other attendees there are questions to answer about whether the hotel gathering was in keeping with the letter, never mind the spirit, of the guidelines. It is a measure of the Government’s concern about the situation that it did what it seldom does this Wednesday and released advice from the Attorney General saying it was not against regulations to organise events and gatherings for up to 200 people.

This was news to much of the hospitality industry. And it is striking that while the Government usually talks about guidelines, and indeed has often conflated regulations and guidelines in its public messaging, it falls back on the letter of the law when it suits it to do so for political reasons.