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Simon says Simon Coveney deleted crucial texts relating to 'Merriongate' gathering

Foreign Affairs Minister also admits he was invited to Merrion Hotel party by former colleague

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Simon Coveney

Simon Coveney

Simon Coveney

FOREIGN Affairs Minister Simon Coveney is facing fresh controversy over the Katherine Zappone Merriongate affair after admitting deleting crucial text messages.

Mr Coveney last night blamed fears over his phone being hacked for the deletion of text exchanges with Ms Zappone and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar as Fianna Fáil backbenchers heavily criticised the senior Coalition minister.

Mr Coveney told the Oireachtas Foreign Affairs Committee that he did not retain texts for storage reasons, before his spokesperson later said: "The minister's phone has been hacked in the past and as a result he regularly clears his phone."

Mr Coveney also admitted Ms Zappone, his former Cabinet colleague, texted him to invite him to her controversial Merrion Hotel party, despite his spokesperson, former Newstalk broadcaster Chris Donoghue, previously claiming Mr Coveney did not receive an invitation to the event and had first learned of it in the Irish Independent.

Mr Donoghue last night admitted this had been an error on his part.

"I knew the minister didn't go to the Merrion event, as he wasn't in Ireland on the day, but I didn't know he'd been invited to the event and had ignored the invite. That was my mistake," he said.

The outdoor social occasion on July 21, which was attended by 50 people including the Tánaiste, came six days before Ms Zappone's controversial appointment as a UN Special Envoy for Freedom of Expression - a role she later relinquished following a public furore over the Merrion event which forced the Government to clarify Covid guidelines on outdoor gatherings.

Mr Coveney also disclosed to the committee for the first time that he had told the Tánaiste "a few days" before the Merrion event about the UN special envoy role.

He said that Mr Varadkar had texted him to say he would be seeing Ms Zappone as she was coming to Dublin.

"He asked was there anything that he needed to know and I texted him back to say we are looking at a concept of a special envoy role in the area of LGBT and freedom of expression space, that was the only conversation," Mr Coveney said.

Insisting that Mr Varadkar had "no act, hand or part" in Ms Zappone's appointment, Mr Coveney later indicated to the committee that he had deleted text exchanges with Mr Varadkar and Ms Zappone relating to the role.

Asked by Sinn Féin TD John Brady if these texts would be made available under Freedom of Information, Mr Coveney said: "I don't hold text messages for long periods of time because of data on my phone."

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On the text invite from Ms Zappone, he said: "I don't have the exact date that I got that text - but I remember seeing it after that event because of the furore around it."

Three Fianna Fáil committee members last night told The Herald of their concerns about Mr Coveney's disclosures.

"The appointment always had the appearance of a divvy up. Unfortunately today's meeting heard enough to confirm that," said TD Barry Cowen.

Mr Varadkar last night said he did not recall having text message conversations with Mr Coveney over the Merrion event but would have to check.

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