Fallout from the bungled appointment of Katherine Zappone to a relatively innocuous post has set off a chain reaction which has returned the Government to the dark days it faced early last summer. Then, as now, it failed to identify and deal with threats which undermined its competence and the coherence of its policies – and all of this has been avoidable.
To begin with, the appointment of Zappone to the position of special envoy for freedom of expression and free speech was not politically vetted before being brought to Cabinet by Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney. Both he and his party’s leader, Leo Varadkar, shoulder the blame for this – and have admitted as much, albeit a little bit too late.
This engendered bad feeling between the Government parties, with many in the Fianna Fáil leadership and rank and file feeling that Taoiseach Micheál Martin had been blindsided – and with good reason. However, the Government – led by Martin – collectively approved the appointment, without identifying the obvious political dangers that lay therein.
Varadkar fuelled the controversy last week when he said Zappone approached Coveney to offer to do the work. It took the Cork South-Central TD two days to clarify the circumstances, denying it was created for her but confirming nobody else had been considered for it during a tetchy interview on RTÉ.
To compound matters, a messy row erupted within Fine Gael over leaking of the appointment in real time. A senior Minister under suspicion of having done so was brought to task by Varadkar, after an elaborate ruse designed to smoke out the culprit was orchestrated by another party TD. The issue was now causing division and dysfunction not just between Coalition parties, but within those parties too.
At all points, almost everyone – including the Opposition – have been at pains to point out Zappone is eminently qualified for the job. But that only gets you so far. An almost total refusal to engage, and delegating her initial responses on Wednesday’s controversy to the Merrion Hotel, was in sharp contrast to her remit promoting freedom of expression.
Similarly, Varadkar, who was the Minister that confirmed First Communions and Confirmations were “off”, should have been more wary attending the Merrion Hotel event. His checking with Zappone that the hotel was in compliance with the rules shows it did raise some red flags in his mind.
While the event may not have breached regulations, it seems to go against the spirit of the wider approach to gatherings, outdoor or otherwise.
The Government’s position is now that it was within the regulations, but some believe this is a convoluted position designed to limit the potential for political damage, especially to Varadkar.
“It shows you the lengths to which Government will go once there’s a threat to Leo,” grumbled one Fianna Fáil TD on Wednesday.
“We’ve lost the audience, we’re not reading the room,” said one Government insider
The final, and most damaging element, will be a lingering impression that there is one rule for insiders and another for everyone else.
“We’re after changing the goalposts to suit the elite,” claimed a Fianna Fáil Minister.
The public is already being asked to navigate an increasingly detailed web of restrictions and the Cabinet was warned last month that complexity could erode compliance. The Government is also asking families to delay or curtail important events like Communions and funerals due to the risk associated with gatherings similar to those which it now suggests are, in fact, in compliance with the regulations.
It is even redrawing already-contradictory guidelines to hammer this point home.
“We’ve lost the audience, we’re not reading the room,” said one Government insider on Wednesday. One Fine Gael TD said the controversy is “a distraction we caused and didn’t need”.
What is the difference, asked Fianna Fáil Senator Timmy Dooley, between the Merrion Hotel event and a few sandwiches outside a hotel following a Communion in east Clare? You’d be hard pressed to find anyone in Government who could point to one.
Throughout the pandemic, it has been shown that things like fairness, consistency, coherence and credibility matter, and they matter beyond politics. The Coalition, it seems, has managed to turn a relatively prosaic piece of Government business into a fiasco which damages all of these things.