Thursday 16 September 2021 4:15 pm

Katherine Zappone affair rocks Irish government as leak allegations pile up

Irish government minister Simon Harris denied today lleaking information from cabinet and said he is “very seriously” considering making a complaint against the Sinn Fein TD who made the allegation.

Speaking with the protection of privilege in the Dail this afternoon, Sinn Fein’s Matt Carthy claimed Harris had leaked information about the proposed appointment of Katherine Zappone as a UN envoy.

The appointment of the former children’s minister to the UN role triggered a major political controversy and led to a vote of confidence in Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney for his handling of the affair.

Harris, the Higher Education Minister, said he is considering making a complaint to the Dail’s disciplinary committee.

Harris said the allegation by Carthy was an “extraordinary abuse” of parliamentary privilege.

“What happened yesterday was an extraordinary misuse of Dail privilege,” Harris said.

“It’s quite extraordinary that would someone would come in to the Dail and misuse Dail privilege, abuse Dail privilege.”

Asked if he was going to make a complaint to the Committee on Parliamentary Privileges and Oversight, Harris said: “I am going to consider it very strongly and after listening to Deputy Carthy’s interview on RTE Radio One in recent minutes, I am going to consider it very, very strongly.

“I take my responsibilities as a TD and as a minister very seriously. Sadly, some people don’t.

“Dail privilege is there for very specific reasons and it’s certainly not there to engage in tittle-tattle.

“Effectively Deputy Carthy said he was repeating what he believed to be general knowledge. He was making a very serious charge on the record of the house in the absence of my presence. It’s untrue and it’s a misuse of Dail privilege.”

‘Sting operation’

During the Dail debate on the confidence motion, which Coveney ultimately survived, Carthy claimed a Fine Gael “sting operation” had identified Harris as the source of the original leak from cabinet about the Zappone appointment.

Mr Carthy told RTE that he stood over his allegation, but admitted he has no evidence to back up the claim.

Mr Harris, who was speaking in Dublin on Thursday, also said that the Tanaiste Leo Varadkar was “completely taken aback” by the allegation.

“Deputy Carthy has now asserted on the national airwaves that he stood up in Dail Eireann yesterday, without any evidence whatsoever, without talking to his party leader, without talking to the Taoiseach, or the Tanaiste, and without any evidence made the comment.”

Asked why none of his party colleagues stood up in the Dail to challenge the allegation, Mr Harris said: “The footage captures the Tanaiste’s reaction and it shows him shaking his head showing that he did not agree with the comment.

“The Tanaiste made very clear comments in relation to this today.”

Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe and Mr Harris both said they were not aware of a so-called “sting operation” allegedly carried out within Fine Gael to identify who leaked the appointment.

Mr Donohoe said: “The allegation that has been made against him is outrageous.

“Sinn Fein did use Dail privilege to make a number of assertions against a really critical member of our Government, whose track record in Cabinet and in politics, who in my mind is exemplary and he has always conducted himself with the highest standards.”

His comments come after Mr Varadkar and Sinn Fein’s Pearse Doherty had clashed over the incident.

Mr Doherty made further claims about the leak as he asked whether Mr Varadkar had informed Taoiseach Micheal Martin about the details.

“You supposedly confronted the senior minister responsible following a Fine Gael sting operation by one of your junior ministers, can I ask you have you shared the details of that with the Taoiseach?” asked Mr Doherty.

Mr Varadkar responded: “What happened in the Dail yesterday was wrong.

“What deputy Carthy did yesterday was an abuse of privilege, to make an allegation against the cabinet based on rumour and no evidence whatsoever.

“I have no evidence that that particular leak which you referred to was done by a cabinet member and it wasn’t even accurate, it wasn’t correct, or at least wasn’t entirely correct and I’ve yet to see any evidence to that effect.

“But that didn’t matter to deputy Carthy.

“He came in here anyway, he heard a rumour, he abused his privilege as a member of the house to make an allegation against another member of the house and I hope that the Committee on Procedures and Privileges will examine this matter.

“Of course it’s not a surprise that Sinn Fein should abuse privilege on the first day back in this house.

“That’s the way they behave in opposition.

“Imagine how they would trample people’s rights if they were allowed into government.”

Mr Varadkar said Sinn Fein had “form” for such behaviour and referenced a 2015 ruling by the Committee on Procedures and Privileges that now leader Mary Lou McDonald had abused privilege when she made tax evasions claims in the Dail.

The Fine Gael leader told Mr Doherty: “You can’t preach to us about standards deputy until you deal with your leader.”