At top from left: Simon Coveney, Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney; Eamon Kelly
There was an old joke about a guy knocking on someone’s door and saying he was a handyman. A few questions revealed that he didn’t actually have any trade skills. The householder in frustration says, In what way are you handy? And the man says, I live just around the corner.
I was reminded of this when FG announced that Katherine Zappone would be a UN envoy, largely on the basis that she lived in New York. And while few would doubt her experience in campaigning for LGBT rights, her true credentials appear to be that she lives in handy proximity to the UN. She’s a political handygal.
Freedom of Opinion and Expression
However, there is another problem with Zappone’s credentials as a human rights activist, concentrated as they are mainly on gay rights, to the extent that John Downing in the Irish Independent described the post as “United Nations’ envoy on women’s, gay and LGBT rights.” While the Irish Times described the role as “special envoy for freedom of expression”. Elsewhere the role was described as “special envoy for freedom of opinion and expression”.
So which is it? If the concept of freedom of opinion and expression is being reduced to mean gender rights alone, that in a sense undermines the wider concept of freedom of opinion and expression.
If gay rights activism is Zappone’s main qualification for the role, the risk is that her appointment actually reduces the scope of the role to that narrower definition, while simultaneously jeopardising and greying out the wider concept of freedom of opinion and expression, as it has already begun to do.
What Katie Did
When opposition deputies accused FG of cronyism, the charge was flatly denied and the entire thing flared up into a great oul political row. Some said the job was dreamed up by Zappone herself, but this was vehemently denied by Simon Coveney on RTE.
What had happened was that Zappone mentioned to Simon Coveney that she would be available for any UN duties the government might have in mind, she being handy to the UN. This can in no way be construed as her creating the role for herself. It was more like she saw the potential of a role for herself in the UN and made a road sign that Simon Coveney could easily read.
Then, a year later, Simon Coveney appointed her as UN envoy of freedom of opinion and expression, apparently without bothering to tell anyone, demonstrating a brilliant capacity in himself for freedom to non-express.
But this is certainly not to suggest that the culture of nod/wink appointments, said to be the sole preserve of Fianna Fáil, as pointed out by Zappone herself in 2015, is now a FG habit too.
Rather this was a series of misunderstandings and oversights, which nevertheless resulted in Zappone somehow successfully landing the job she coveted.
But there were absolutely no nods or winks involved. We know this because Micheál Martin, who must be particularly sensitive and alert to nods and winks, given his Fianna Fáil lineage, hadn’t a clue what was going on.
The appointment may look and sound like cronyism, but we know it wasn’t cronyism, because FG spokespersons said it wasn’t cronyism, so therefore it mustn’t be cronyism. It must be some other thing that normal, sensible people can’t quite fathom.
Because if it was cronyism, you can be certain that FG would own up and say it was so. They wouldn’t spin the truth to make it sound like it was something else. True, they have a spin unit for doing just that, but this is different.
Even the idea that Zappone dreamed up the job for herself, apparently originated with the Tánaiste, who later backtracked and said, before buttoning his lip, that whatever Simon says is true.
Simon says, it’s not cronyism. Simon says, it was all a series of unfortunate oversights.
The appointment was framed ultimately as just a case of plain “common sense”.
Look, we need an envoy for freedom of expression, because all the other countries have a freedom of expression envoy, it’s the latest thing to make it seem like the growing epidemic of political bare-faced lying is being sensibly counter-balanced. We don’t want to be left behind.
Besides, as everyone knows, Fine Gael, who sent almost the entire arts community at one time or another to JobPath to retrain for something “realistic”, are singularly concerned about freedom of expression. They never tire of dreaming up legislation to cultivate freedom of expression.
Sure, under normal circumstances the job would have been advertised. But with the pandemic and everything and the cost of living it would be nonsensical to spend public money on advertising the position when we have someone, eminently qualified, living handy to the UN, who is also a proud friend of Fine Gael.
So, for all the misunderstandings and all the unfounded tirades from the usual gallery of complainers, we now have a representative in the UN protecting and overseeing our right to freedom of expression. Even if questioning the dubious nature of the appointment itself is considered bad manners, if not downright subversive behaviour.
The inescapable conclusion must be that the Zappone appointment, given the political cronyism at play, coupled with the narrowing of the concept of freedom of opinion and expression with gender equality, has the effect of undermining the very concept the envoy post is designed to protect.
Eamonn Kelly is a Galway-based freelance Writer and Playwright.
Previously: Eamonn Kelly on Broadsheet
Earlier: Well Now