DONAL HORGAN: Zappona Virus: The cancer of cronyism in Irish life

For many, the recent scandal involving the appointment of former minister Katherine Zappone to the post of UN special envoy sums up all that is wrong with Irish politics.

At this point, the choreography surrounding the appointment isn’t clear but some things are. Zappone, who was unceremoniously dumped by the Irish electorate in 2020 is contacted by Simon Coveney, an old cabinet friend, offering her a dream job as a UN special envoy. The entire proposal is sprung by Coveney at a packed cabinet agenda on the day before the summer recess. His boss, Taoiseach Micheál Martin, desperately trying to extend his doomed tenure in office, looks awkwardly at the floor and suggests that it’s time we all ‘move on’.

One popular take on the Zappone appointment is that it typifies an old Ireland where calls are made and things are secretly sorted – but is it?

One of the characteristics that a newly independent Ireland inherited from British rule was an insistence on scrupulous procedure particularly in public appointments. That’s not to say that favours weren’t done but, in contrast to many other new countries, Irish public life was relatively free from corruption and political cronyism.

As its early government, Cumann na nGaedheal and subsequently Fine Gael set high ethical standards for itself in all aspects of public life. Life in the newly independent state may have been frugal and even austere but its prevailing political culture was scrupulously honest and above board.

It makes you wonder what today’s Fine Gael actually has in common with those who founded the party of the same name. Fine Gael then was a fiscally conservative party; today, it is borrowing billions in what looks like a desperate attempt to buy electoral popularity. Fine Gael then was a socially conservative party; today, it’s an aggressively liberal one with a disdain for social conservatives.

Katherine Zappone could hardly be described as the representative of some popular national movement who, having done the state some service, was badly treated by an ungrateful Irish public. She lost her Dáil seat in February 2020 fair and square – it happens to lots of politicians and most of them don’t have the luxury of being able to contact an old cabinet friend in order to get back on to the political carousel.

Even in the 2016 election, Zappone’s entry on to the national stage was less than impressive. She was elected to the Dáil on the 16th count taking the last seat in the Dublin South West constituency. With a first preference vote of 4,463, her popular support was less than that of many county councillors.

However, that didn’t stop Zappone exploiting Enda Kenny’s difficult political situation. In return for pledging support, she was appointed as Minister for Children. With gender quotas in place, the fact that Zappone was a woman undoubtedly aided her overnight rise from political nobody to cabinet minister. The irony, of course, is that for someone who benefited politically from being a woman, Zappone views gender as a somewhat fluid concept in line with prevailing LGBTQ ideology.

The Irish political culture that Katherine Zappone benefitted from and, as recent events again demonstrate, continues to benefit from is by no means an old Ireland conservative one. It is a new liberal creation rooted in the idea of jobs for the girls and boys with the right opinions – liberal and progressive ones of course.

This is well illustrated by Ireland’s €5.9 billion NGO industry. No one says you need to be a member of a particular political party to get a post here but going by the fact that many of our high flying NGO chief executives are either failed or retired members of Fine Gael or Labour, it appears that having the right views (liberal/progressive) is certainly a big help in starting your NGO career.

Interestingly, Zappone first came into the public eye when she was appointed as CEO of the National Women’s Council of Ireland. In turn, this became a platform for her appointment – not election – to Seanad Éireann by Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny in 2011. Her position as a Senator subsequently became a launch pad for contesting an election to Dáil Éireann. This is typical of the tax payer funded support structure available to Irish liberals hoping to get into public office.

Zappone’s reinvention from rejected politician to UN special envoy is by no means unusual. It illustrates how, far from being part of some great populist movement, many liberals and progressives have always struggled with the inconvenient task of actually winning elections. The difference for many liberals is that, if they lose, there are lots of consolation prizes in the modern Irish political ecosystem to keep them in play until the next election comes along.

The recent election of Labour’s Ivana Bacik to Dáil Éireann after years of failed attempts is a case in point. While most people would probably walk away from politics given such rejection, Irish liberals have the benefit of being able to pick up appointments with NGOs, State Boards and the like simply because they have the right opinions or are the right gender. There is also the support of a largely sympathetic media who can be relied on to provide a public platform until such time as the Irish electorate finally come to their senses and make the right decision.

Rather than being some one-off, the Zappone appointment is in fact a very normal part of an Irish political ecosystem which includes areas such as the Seanad, NGOs and State Boards. The message remains that there will always be jobs for the girls and boys with the right views even if they can’t win elections. This is not some vestige of an old conservative Ireland – it is the new creation of a new liberal Ireland which exists largely for the benefit of liberals and self-styled progressives.

 

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