Senator Rónán Mullen

My Seanad colleague Sharon Keogan doesn’t mind the heat. Lucky for her, because she got plenty of it when she dared to vent her views on the Katherine Zappone affair on Twitter during the week.

“The most worrying issue here is the agenda of governments worldwide to catapult #LGBTQIA personnel into high level positions,” Keogan said. “One’s gender or sexuality shouldn’t be used for a seat at any table,” she continued. This wasn’t “equality”, but “an organised takeover at every level of society”, she argued. Maybe some exaggeration in that last bit, depending on your point of view, but nothing to justify the hail of accusations of ‘homophobia’ that followed. Even some well-known names got in on the act, including broadcaster and comedian Sean Moncrieff, who chose to stand on the easy side of the street. “Gays will soon be raining from the skies … wear your anti-gay hat, or you can join the Senator in her LGBTQ-repellent dungeon.”

Senator Keogan might have phrased things differently by using the word ‘activists’ instead of ‘personnel’. But she was relying on Zappone’s own words as texted to Simon Coveney. “Biden has promised to appoint lgbtq folks to high level positions at federal agencies, and presidential memo to advance human rights of lgbtq throughout the world, and Executive Order to support reproduction health care and rights thru funding of international agencies and partners.”

In other words, “Simon, you want to be on the right side of the US administration which is appointing people like me to plum jobs right now.”

Remarkably little attention has been paid to this aspect of things by our woke political and cultural establishment, despite the deluge of commentary. The issue has been portrayed as just another case of political insiderism. A Government minister promises a makey-uppey job to a former colleague, and the job spec gets drafted retrospectively to suit the person and the agenda. Sinn Féin makes hay with the cronyism bit. Fianna Fáil backbenchers grumble that FG heads are not rolling by contrast with the shedding of Fianna Fáil ministers after Golfgate.

But none of them want to talk about why Zappone was such a shoo-in that Coveney, despite his remarkable denials, committed himself to her as far back as March, well before he asked the Department of Foreign Affairs to prepare a ‘concept note’ on the idea of such an Envoy.

The documentation that emerged on foot of FOI requests tells the story. It reveals an Irish diplomatic establishment heavily invested in LGBTI activism and politics. One document shows Caoimhe Ní Chonchúir, First Secretary at our UN mission emailing colleagues about the ‘welcome news’ about Biden’s appointment of an Envoy for the rights of LGBTQI+ Persons, and celebrating the fact that Ireland can join the LGBTI Core Group now that they’ve found a partner country (South Africa) from the Global South (this was a difficult task, apparently).

So it was a case of political groupthink. Zappone was offered a job before it was even defined because the appointment of someone like her to a UN role fitted the zeitgeist. It just had to be right. No further thought, no sed contra argument was needed.

Now you might say that all this is tickety-boo. After all, the marriage referendum passed in 2015 by a two-thirds majority and all reasonable people should defend the rights of homosexual persons. If we can use our influence at the UN to prevent them from being persecuted in other parts of the world, we should, and as a priority.

But the precise definition of rights in this area remains a contested space, despite the efforts of some activists to close down debate. Some countries robustly defend the rights and freedoms of gay people while insisting that marriage should be an institution for men and women to found families. Many people who support gay rights oppose children in schools being subjected to the ideological view that all relationships are the same or that the sex a person is born with has nothing to do with their real gender. How are those who hold these views to be represented by the political establishment?

Some honesty and transparency would help. Announcing the Zappone appointment on 27 July, the Government told us that she was to be a UN Envoy for ‘Freedom of Opinion and Expression’. But texting Leo Varadkar from the Piglet wine bar on 16 July, Katherine said she was “expecting to hear from Simon C (Coveney) about my appointment as Special Envoy for Human Rights and LGBTQ+ issues”.

So even the job title was spun by the Government.

The Envoy role that the Irish Government should have created, and which would also uphold the rights of LGBT people, is the much more tried-and-tested one of Envoy for Freedom of Religion and Belief. Far more people are being persecuted in the world today for their religious belief than for their sexuality. These are mostly Christians, but they include many Muslims and smaller groups like the Yazidi people. There are atheists too who need protection from intolerant regimes. Freedom of belief, to manifest one’s beliefs and the freedom to change one’s beliefs are protected by Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The European Commission has appointed a Special Envoy in this area and a number of EU members have followed suit, including Germany, Italy, Austria, Hungary and Denmark. The UK has one too.

Any chance of a ‘concept note’ on this vital issue from our Department of Foreign Affairs? Maybe with some input from our diplomats at the UN?

And if we do get around to making such an appointment Katherine Zappone should certainly be entitled to throw her hat in the ring. Along with everybody else of course.


Rónán Mullen is an Independent Senator for the National University of Ireland constituency.