"That Dáil Éireann has confidence in the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence, Simon Coveney T.D.”
A motion seeking the removal of a member of Government is a serious matter. Since the foundation of the State, Dáil Éireann has held that these motions are the most serious that can be tabled. They are supposed to mark an important statement on fundamental policy failures or a serious legal issue. The sad reality is that the issue of confidence in the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence before the House this evening has nothing to do with any of this. It has nothing to do with seeking to protect the State or assert the rule of law. It most certainly has nothing to do with the refusal to be accountable to the Oireachtas and the Irish people. No questions have been ignored. It has nothing to do with asserting a sincerely held point of principle about misconduct or the abuse of office. Let us be clear that we are debating this motion because one party decided that it was a handy way to get publicity and deliver populist, partisan attacks.
There is no question or doubt about the substantive issues in this controversy; they are uncontested. The position involved was intended to be part time and awarded no permanent benefits to anyone. There is no allegation of a benefit being sought for or conferred on any officeholder. Ultimately, as we know, no one was appointed to the role.
However, as I stressed from the beginning, there is an important matter and it is a perfectly legitimate issue of public concern. The creation of this role and the attempt to appoint an individual to it was handled carelessly and badly. As the House will be aware, the Minister has apologised to me, his ministerial colleagues, the Oireachtas and the public on a number of occasions for his handling of the matter. He has accepted that I should have been informed of the proposal in good time and that the procedures followed were unacceptable. Procedures that were not properly followed were strengthened and where they were missing have been introduced. The Minister and the Tánaiste have published extensive material, including text messages and departmental emails, about all matters relating to the appointment. The Minister has also twice appeared without delay before an Oireachtas committee and answered lengthy and detailed questions. His handling of this appointment was wrong but by any fair measure it would be completely out of proportion to remove a Minister on the basis of what is involved in this matter. As I have said, I have received private and public apologies for the failure to provide appropriate notice of this proposal. More important, procedures have been put in place to ensure this never happens again.
This is a coalition Government of three distinct parties, which are seeking to work together on behalf of the Irish people. One of the most important roles for the Taoiseach in a Government such as this is to seek to sort out problems rather than to exploit them for some short-term gain. In this case, the problem has been addressed. There has been no reluctance to accept accountability and action has been taken to prevent any recurrence. My primary focus is, and has been, to lead a Government that is delivering change at a radical pace even while handling once-in-a-century public health crisis.
In demanding the removal of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence, Sinn Féin has made a long series of statements about what standards it believes should be implemented. It is important to address this issue of standards that Sinn Féin says should be basic in any government. Sinn Féin has at no point raised any concern with how the Minister has been fulfilling his duties. There is no allegation before the House that he has neglected or mishandled any of the major issues under his supervision, some of which have seen him work directly with Sinn Féin. The motion is before us because we are being asked to accept that the non-appointment of Katherine Zappone to a temporary and part-time envoy position was a gross abuse of office. This is manifestly not the case and Sinn Féin is seeking to demand a standard of accountability that goes well beyond anything that party has ever been willing to practice in its 50-year history up to and including its current officeholders.
Some of the statements that Deputy McDonald has made in the past few days are genuinely breathtaking in their cynicism and the double standards involved. She even went as far as to say yesterday that her party had been forced into tabling the motion because it was not "prepared to look the other way". Is Sinn Féin not prepared to look the other way? This debate is simply not long enough for us to go through the list of dramatically worse and often sinister events where looking the other way has been the defining essence of the Sinn Féin response.
It is important, however, to address the specific issue of appointments. There is only one party in this House, which refused to act on a fair employment tribunal judgement that one of their Ministers appointed someone to the chair of an important public body because "he was not from a Protestant background and because he was known to the minister and his ministerial colleagues". The Minister involved faced no sanction from his party leader and he remains at the very top of the Sinn Féin organisation.
Anyone who pays any attention to appointments which are at the discretion of Sinn Féin Ministers has known that for a long time that such appointments very rarely go anywhere other than to current or former public representatives, advisers and supporters. In the case of North-South bodies, Sinn Féin only ever nominates its own people. This goes far beyond North-South bodies. For example, when the acting Sinn Féin Minister for Communities was looking for someone to appoint to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, where did she go? She went to the party and appointed her former ministerial colleague, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir. There are many more examples of this, every one of which is less transparent and more consequential than the part-time envoy non-appointment the party is attacking.
In this, as in every other area of public life in this country, it seems that as far as Sinn Féin is concerned accountability is for other people. Its partitionist approach of having radically different core principles on either side of the Border will some day catch up with it. There will come a point where more broadcasters decides to stop allowing the hypocrisy to go unchallenged. It is simply remarkable, for instance, that genuine scandals reported by programmes such as BBC Northern Ireland’s "Spotlight" have been ignored in coverage in the Republic. In various interviews in recent days, Deputy McDonald has attacked me and Fianna Fáil, always casually ignoring much more serious issues, which she will not even acknowledge. There is something genuinely unique about the ability to say on the national airwaves, "I certainly don't know many millionaires", when she leads what has been for many years Ireland’s wealthiest party, which organises fundraising among the very wealthy in New York every year, and is accepting more than €3 million in a single bequest. What would happen to any of the Government parties or indeed any other party or independent individual here if they had moved a multi-million euro bequest out of the country, from a man of no-fixed-abode who lived in a caravan, in order to accept it and to avoid any tax on it. Can one imagine this?
Sinn Féin did not propose to remove the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence because of any standards it advocates or implements. It saw a political opportunity and was confident that its own behaviour would not be questioned.
There is important work to do in the Department of Foreign Affairs and the errors that were made have been addressed.
There has been full transparency, and every reasonable question has been responded to. Procedures have been tightened to ensure that this will not happen again. The Minister has apologised and I have accepted his apology.
Our country is emerging from a once-in-a-century pandemic. Our society and our economy are reopening and have to be renewed. I am proud of the work Fianna Fáil and the other Government parties are doing in this regard. With the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, we have fundamentally transformed the State's approach to homebuilding in response to a housing crisis. With the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, we have begun a process of profound reform of our health services. The Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, is concluding a comprehensive review of the country's national development plan, investing in services and projects for the long term, and we are preparing for a budget that will drive forward our recovery from the pandemic. The Minister, Deputy Foley, has ensured that our children are safely back at school, with significant funding to mitigate the damage Covid has done to the learning environment and to their education. Our young people are back enjoying third level education on campus. The Minister, Deputy McConalogue, is ensuring that our farmers, agrifood producers, rural communities and fishing communities are protected for the future, particularly by the environmental schemes, which have been oversubscribed. As a Government, we are transforming the apprenticeship sector, introducing real insurance reform, improving mental health services and radically changing services for older people and citizens with disabilities for the better.
Sinn Féin will play its games. My party, Fianna Fáil, and the three-party coalition Government will do what we were elected to do: we will work every month we have to improve the quality of people's lives and to build up our country.