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a sequence of unforced errors

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Katherine Zappone’s decision not to take up the role of special envoy on freedom of expression will ease a controversy that was entirely of the Government’s own making. Appointing a part-time special envoy at the United Nations ought to be a difficult thing to mess up. Yet through a sequence of basic political errors and a botched response when the controversy ignited, it quickly became clear that the former minister’s withdrawal would be the episode’s inevitable conclusion.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney brought the plan to appoint Zappone to this newly-created position to Cabinet last week without informing Taoiseach Micheál Martin in advance – a breach of protocol. At best it looked like an oversight, at worst that Fine Gael was “pulling a fast one”, as one former Fianna Fáil minister put it. Certainly it did not reflect well on the political instincts of Coveney or his advisers. But instead of tamping down the row with a full account of the role and Zappone’s appointment to it, the Government went to ground. What little explanation emerged was partial and at times contradictory.

A week on, it was still not clear how Zappone ended up in the role. Nor had it been established, thanks to inconsistent statements from Ministers, whether the position was Zappone’s idea. We did not know what the role would entail, who Zappone would report to or what objectives she had been set. An opaque statement from the Department of Foreign Affairs, saying the position would “provide enhanced capacity for high-level engagement on a small number of Irish human rights priorities”, did not exactly bring clarity.

Into this information vacuum yesterday came news that Zappone had hosted an outdoor party for 50 friends and former colleagues, including Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, at the Merrion Hotel in Dublin six days before her appointment to the UN role. The hotel said the event was in full compliance with public health guidelines at the time. Zappone finally broke a week-long silence but merely to direct queries to the hotel and to say the establishment had assured her the event was in compliance. It’s not clear why she would rely on the venue for this information rather than reading up on the regulations herself.

Regardless of the letter of those guidelines, it showed curious judgment for a public figure to host a party in a five-star hotel in the middle of a wave of Covid infections. The accusation last week was that nice State jobs go to those who are in the circle; now it was that there was one standard for that circle and another for everyone else. The Archbishop of Dublin was quick to note that “it’s okay to have a bash in the Merrion” but not to hold a Communion. The Government’s problem – and the reason Zappone was left with little choice– was that many will have shared that sense that double standards were at work.

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