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Come out of there, Katherine Zappone.

Freedom of Expression had a lucky escape.

By Vanessa Foran.

Katherine Zappone, once upon a time, was packaged as a hero to liberals, a wrapper she was very eager to envelop herself in as she set out to make such a name for herself that she hoovered in a Taoiseach’s pick for the Seanad.  There she railed and railed against cronyism. That is what we all saw and heard.

It is extraordinary how this one-time beacon of transparency has run to ground after a scandal.

Yet this piece is not about her own hypocritical and absenteeist cronyism but about her more general competence, and fitness for office.

As a professional politician her electoral record was poor to start with.  Her first attempt in 2016 managed 6.6% and benefited enormously from transfers, yet it took a full recount to get her into the final Dáil seat in Dublin South West.  By 2020, her first preference dropped to 5.5% and transfers were not so generous, and she was out.

While she was appointed a Minister on her first Dáil term on her first attempt, within barely three years of her Constituency office opening its doors, the voters of Dublin South West did not re-elect its only Minister. 

Shortly after her election in 2016, the now Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, was enmired  in controversy when she claimed excessive expenses for mileage. 

 The Sunday Times reported that she stood to earn €80,000 over the following five years from these expenses as she stated she lived more than 25 km from Leinster House. The paper, however, reported that AA’s Route Planner put the distance at less than 22 km. During her time in the Seanad, Zappone was paid expenses on that same basis; that she lived farther than 25 km from Leinster House  No matter where a voter is on the political spectrum, politicians overstepping on expenses is a spot all voters share agreement on.  

Katherine Zappone’s performance as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs was abysmal, and the Fine Gael leadership had the best view of it. So why were Fine Gael’s elite in the vanguard of her over-promotion to a position as Special Envoy with an emphasis on Freedom of Expression and LGBTQ+ rights?

Katherine Zappone’s performance as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs was abysmal, and the Fine Gael leadership had the best view of it. So why were Fine Gael’s elite in the vanguard of her over-promotion to a position as Special Envoy with an emphasis on Freedom of Expression and LGBTQ+ rights?

From the moment she accepted the seal of office, she routinely delayed the Commission Report into the Mother and Baby Homes, and tormented the survivors every step of the way; and she did it as if it was a condition of the appointment to office.  

Even as an Independent TD and Minister she carried on with the agreed protocol developed by the Department of the Taoiseach from Enda Kenny’s era, with assistance from the Religious Orders of course.  A policy that still exists with Minister Roderic O’Gorman.  But that is not the story we are writing about; for now.

While Katherine Zappone was their Minister, she patronised the Mother and Baby Home survivors with insincere compassion – the very worst kind of politicking – with her opportunistic photobombing and staged nodding at the horrors being unearthed at each burial, or dump-site if you like, that unfolded during her short term. 

She portrayed herself as the Survivors’ Champion, a woman of compassion, decency and integrity to the many survivor groups, their families and supporters, yet she was everything but.  

Just on this element of her Ministerial portfolio alone, we should be allowed say this without contradiction; Irish Liberals should choose their Heroes more carefully.

She also got into hot water for meeting Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe privately in 2017  when Tusla – the child protection agency which functioned under her Departmental aegis – had kept a false allegation of sexual impropriety against McCabe on file for nearly two years after it had been debunked. This prevented other Cabinet members, such as the Minister for Justice, following up on the scandal. ‘Enda the Road: Nine Days that Toppled a Taoiseach’ by journalist and broadcaster Gavan Reilly, reveals how behind the scenes, Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s Department sought to stop a statement being issued by Zappone’s Department on what was known about a Tusla file relating to McCabe: “Kenny’s team were profoundly displeased that Zappone’s handlers issued the statement without their full agreement”. Reilly claimed that after a car-crash  interview where he falsely recalled with specific detail how he had spoken to Zappone before her meeting with the McCabes, Kenny’s trustworthiness took a hit from which he never recovered”. 

Even on a day-to-day, operational level, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone was publicly criticised in a report card derived directedly from the Dáil Public Accounts Committee, making it absolutely fair to say the current Cabinet also has a good idea of Katherine Zappone’s work ethic and performance as a Minister with a specifically prescribed and well-funded portfolio.

In the closing season as her only term as a TD and Minister, her use or lack of, the resources in her hands were officially declared “unacceptable”.  Year 2019 ended with Katherine Zappone leaving €58.7 million that taxpayers gave her for vulnerable children and young adults, unspent.  

She returned €58.7 million to the Exchequer to fund other stuff, like the ‘disappointment money’ suddenly required by Paschal Donohue and Michael McGrath, Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure respectively, for the many TDs who weren’t returned to the Dáil just a month later.  In fact, she was one of them herself.

Not putting her Department’s full allocation from Budget 2019 to work, conduced to around 6,000 children still being without a Social Worker by the time Katherine Zappone put herself in front of the voters of Dublin South West a second time.  

The Cabinet  knew what they were doing since her handling of creches and childcare services during the first lockdown as an acting Minister was inept, and nothing else.

Late March and into April 2020 was the time when essential workers needed childcare the most, with no schools and cocooning grandparents.  This was also the time we needed our essential workers the most, while childcare providers did not know what they could do for parents from one day to the next while their acting Minister sulked.  

It firmly establishes Katherine Zappone as far too incompetent to be considered for any role of strategic and national importance.

Additionally, the mere attempt to appoint Zappone to a role in the UN, even a makey-up one, was not at arm’s length,  was not transparent, and did not go through a formal competitive procedure.  

Nor did the Dept of Foreign Affairs seek to appoint the best person for the role, simply because nobody knows who would have been the best person for the role.

The Cabinet intended it as a taxpayers’ gift to Katherine Zappone.

If Katherine Zappone has any future in public life she must explain herself.

She is expected to be invited by the Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs to answer questions about #ZapponeGate

Her quiescent refusal to come forward and stand with the people that made her a Senior Government Minister, should confirm that her only loyalty is to herself.  

Freedom of Expression had a lucky escape.

And so did we.