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5 things to know about ‘Giz a Job’ Zappone and cronyism in Ireland

The folks in Cabinet seem puzzled by the public reaction to the news that former Minister Katherine Zappone had asked for, and promptly received, one of those ludicrous positions that are clearly invented to give one of The Deserving Few another job. 

Zappone had a chat with Minister Simon Coveney, presumably on the special direct-dial red phone reserved for ex-Ministers who want a favour, suggesting she’d be only marvelous for the UN role, and the whole thing was sorted pronto.

It’s the Irish version of ‘leaning in’ I suppose, except for the especially well-connected. No need to publicly advertise the position, or to interview any alternatives, since that’s clearly a process only necessary for the great unwashed.

As the leader of the Rural Independents, Mattie McGrath, said: “the hand-picked appointment of former Minister Zappone to the unadvertised cushy UN role, represents a deeply cynical and arrogant development at the last cabinet meeting.” Hard to argue with that, and other opposition TDs have described the appointment as “cronyism”.

Zappone is now set to become a “Special Envoy for Freedom Of Opinion and Expression” representing Ireland at the UN. It is, as all things are with that sprawling behemoth, a paid position with travel and the usual expenses, plus all the nice, warm, fuzzy feelings one gets from being a very important person.

In fact, Zappone was a TD for just one term (yes just one, despite being immediately made a Minister) and was previously a member of the Seanad, appointed to the position by Enda Kenny. Not exactly the track record you might assume she had from the huffing and puffing from the Tánaiste in defence of her new appointment. The various government ministers being sent out to bat in recent days would have you believe the position was a reward for a lifetime of faithful, voluntary, service to making Ireland a better country.

Some commentators, including Gript’s Ben Scallan, argue that she is particularly unsuited to this role, given her support for censorship and for laws which can be used, often maliciously, to smack down freedom of opinion and expression. It might be hard to be a Special Envoy for free speech in those circumstances, but then again we’re not all gifted with the special talents that being a one-term Minister ensures. .

Anyway, since at this point there’s no sign that anyone might do the decent thing and scrap the fixture, here’s five things the controversy has re-affirmed about cronyism in Ireland.


1. It hasn’t gone away, you know

Cronyism is a word that always has politicians running scared since it brings up long memories of people getting publicly-funded jobs because of who they know. There’s a lot of talk about politics –  and everything else in Ireland – becoming transparent and accountable, yet all the senior politicians involved in this fiasco must have thought there’d be no questions asked of this particular appointment.

Now, Zappone is admittedly a media darling, being American, a progressive, and ticking all the usual liberal boxes, so maybe they thought they’d get away with it. Indeed, Michéal Martin, the man who says he’s Taoiseach, seemed impatient with questions on the issue at the presser this week, telling everyone they needed to “move on”. He’s got some neck.

Leo Varadkar, who brought Zappone’s appointment to the Cabinet table,  was also dismissive of the fuss, strongly denying that this amounted to cronyism. Such charges were “nonsense” he said. Peadar Tóibín of Aontú had a different view. “If FG/FF/Greens are allowed to get away with this cronyism, it will happen over and over again in the future. Appointments need to be made on merit not on connections,” he said.

Here’s the fundamental question: if using personal connections to ask that you be given a shiny new  job – which has not been advertised and for which no-one else has been given the right to apply – isn’t cronyism, then what is?


2. The rarified golden circle is unbelievably entitled and out of touch

Politicians show just how removed they are from ordinary people when they dismiss significant sums of cash being granted to their pals as a trifle. Right now, hundreds of thousands of people are unemployed or on the PUP, with many worried sick about a looming recession, or worn out trying to find housing or afford healthcare.

There was, understandably, considerable anger at the dismissal of €15,000 as payment to attend some UN meetings as small change. Everyone understands that the small change adds up, especially when it’s mostly offered within the same small circle.

Fine Gael TD, Emer Higgins, caused a near-visceral reaction online with her defence of the Zappone appointment on Virgin Media. “This is a 13 or 15 grand role . . . I don’t think we want to make a huge mountain out of a molehill here either,” she said.

Sure, what’s €15,000? That’s only pocket money for the political classes. But we pay it, not Emer Higgins or the Cabinet. And can we stop pretending that the travel, hotel trips, increased visibility, and staff all now available to Zappone aren’t also valuable.

The annual State Contributory pension is €12,912  by the way, if you’re looking for some perspective, something clearly entirely lacking at the Cabinet.

In addition, lest anyone think the supposedly paltry sum of €15,000 might be an annual amount, it’s far from the case. Leo Varadkar, who also made light of what he clearly considered a negligible amount, said Katherine Zappone might work “hundreds of hours” for that sum. Bless. If it was a hundred hours, that means we’d fork €150 per hour for someone who supports censorship on social media to tell the UN about freedom of expression. Nice work if you can find it. But you can’t, because Zappone suggested it, lobbied for it, got it, and still has it, despite no one else getting a look in.

Welcome to Crony Ireland, where the political elite is still absolutely taking the proverbial out of the people. Why wouldn’t they? They seem answerable to no-one.


3. It’s a small little world in that golden circle

The golden circle, much as lefties might protest otherwise, is evidenced right across the political spectrum. It’s not just about helping friends to get lucrative mobile licences or giving pals information they might not otherwise have accessed – but often about ensuring the ‘right’ sort of people get the funding and appointments they want.

So someone makes the decision to give the Far-Right Observatory, an anonymous collective of activists with no website or formal structure, €100,000 in taxpayer funds, and no questions are asked. Appointments are made to lucrative EU jobs, and to State boards, which all too-often seem more about rewarding those in the inner circle than anything else.

As Matt Treacy wrote on this platform, too many politicians seem inclined to ensure that “pet projects and activists are kept well supplied with taxpayers’ monies”.

Of course, when Zappone came to Ireland first, her initial vehicle for soaking up taxpayer funding was the Tallaght-based organisation, An Cosán. As Minister for Children she was responsible for Tusla, which granted An Cosán €549,918 in 2018 alone. A further degree of separation might have been advisable, but that doesn’t seem to matter in Ireland.

As Children’s Minister, Zappone also appointed journalist and fellow activist Úna Mullally to a paid position of Chair of a LGBT Strategy Committee. Plus ça change..


4. Michéal Martin is no longer a player

Micheál Martin, it appears, was not even told about the decision to nominate Katherine Zappone as a special envoy. He’s only the Taoiseach after all, though I’m pretty sure that an opinion poll which asked voters to guess who’s in charge might have them incorrectly positing that Varadkar still holds the position.

Martin was not aware of the plan to appoint Ms Zappone prior to Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting, nor was he aware that Zappone had proposed the role for herself to Simon Coveney who had then discussed it with  Leo Varadkar. Martin now says it’s up to Coveney to clarify exactly how Zappone got the job without any competition – and if she asked for the role to be created for her.

It seems obvious that Martin is no longer considered a real player by his partners in government. Fine Gael are running rings around him. He’s brought Fianna Fáil to single-digits in the polls and to its worst election result ever in Dublin Bay South, yet he insists everything is grand. The man has no shame.


5. Irish politicians tend to brazen it out

Mind you, Micheál Martin is not alone. Irish politicians are absolute champions at brazening things out. If it was an Olympic sport, there would be gold medals all round.

Again, Zappone has form here. She was criticised in 2016 for defending her travel and accommodation expenses after the Sunday Times reported that she was set to claim €80,000 over the next five years by registering as living more than 25km from Leinster House.

The newspaper said that the AA’s Route Planner put the actual distance for Zappone at less than 22km.

The then TD insisted, however, that she was “operating within the rules”.

“After trying several routes between my house and Leinster House, I found it to be the fastest and most efficient in terms of saving time,” she said.

It just also happened to be  the route that allowed significantly more expenses to be claimed. But Zappone stuck to her guns  and was made a Minister in jig time. There’s a lesson there for all young, up and coming TDs.

Mind you, it took RTÉ, the tax-payer funded news station, more than 24-hours to get to the current story, so a refusal to engage might seem to be the obvious option for anyone being accused of cronyism or milking the system in Ireland.  Peadar Tóibín has called for the Taoiseach to “reverse this act of cronyism and initiate a transparent, competitive process open to all qualified interested parties to fill the vacancy.” It seems unlikely that this will happen. The question that now needs to be answered is, why not?

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