Strategic Communications Unit not a ‘spin shop’ for Varadkar

Unit strongly criticised by Opposition leaders who say it will promote political propaganda

The Strategic Communications Unit was set up after Leo Varadkar succeeded Enda Kenny as Taoiseach and is tasked with communicating the message of the Government to the general public. File photograph:  iStockPhoto

The Strategic Communications Unit was set up after Leo Varadkar succeeded Enda Kenny as Taoiseach and is tasked with communicating the message of the Government to the general public. File photograph: iStockPhoto

 

The Government has defended the controversial new communications unit in Merrion Street, strongly disputing the claim it will be a “spin shop” for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

Senior Government sources with knowledge of how the unit will operate maintained that the unit would be non-partisan and would allow citizens to fully understand what Government was doing, irrespective of which party was in power.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has insisted the unit would not be used to promote any party political agenda.

Mr Varadkar said such use would be a contravention of the law and pledged no office within the Department of the Taoiseach would be used for electoral purposes.

The Strategic Communications Unit was set up after Mr Varadkar succeeded Enda Kenny and is tasked with communicating the message of the Government to the general public.

Propaganda allegations

It has been strongly criticised by opposition leaders, who have alleged it will be used to promote political propaganda.

However, the key personnel who will run the unit are both public servants. Former Fáilte Ireland executive John Concannon oversaw The Gathering in 2013, the 1916 centenary commemorations and recently he also headed the Government’s major Culture Ireland initiative.

The Sligo native has been at assistant secretary grade for a number of years and it is understood this will remain as it has been. The salary range for that senior position in the public service is between €122,000 and €139,000.

The other official appointed to the unit is Andrea Pappin, who already works in the Department of an Taoiseach and has an assistant principal grade. Ms Pappin has previously worked on media and communications strategy for the Government’s Brexit campaign.

The sources said the unit would have no role in day-to-day political issues, which was the job of the Government Information Service, and its senior personnel, Nick Miller, Fearghal Purcell and Sarah Meade.

Citing the controversy over the public service card as an example, the source said the unit would not be involved in any comment on that. However, it was pointed out that if the public service card were to be introduced in future, the unit would have a role in devising a strategy that would allow the public to fully understand its uses and its purpose.

Strategic initiatives

The source pointed out that other strategic initiatives where the unit might play a role will lie in setting out a campaign around the Government’s major 10-year capital programme - to be launched later this year - and explaining how it will benefit and affect citizens throughout the country.

That could be achieved by traditional media, social media, video and public meetings in various locations in the State.

Another example of a campaign, the source said, might be one for the new National Children’s Hospital.

The purpose of the unit will be to explain new initiatives, strategies and programmes from a “whole of government” point of view, rather than leaving all the responsibilities to individual departments.

Until now, the communication for major government projects has been left to individual departments and agencies, and it has sometimes in the past not been as co-ordinated or focused as it should have been, the source said.

Speaking in Dublin on Thursday, the Taoiseach said there had been no cost to establishing the unit.

“I believe good communication is important; good communication is a virtue and very often people say to me, and they are right, that the Government has not been very good at explaining to people what it happening,” he said.

“The Strategic Information Unit is being set up to better communicate to the public, taxpayers and citizens what the Government does on its behalf, how it spends taxpayers’ money, and by Government I do not mean politicians of the Government, I mean the public service and sector as a whole.”

The Taoiseach said there will be some additional expenditure down the line and the scale of these costs would be made available.

Opposition leaders have criticised the unit, claiming it will used for political purposes and could be used to promote Fine Gael activities.

People Before Profit TD Gino Kenny said the salary which Mr Concannon will earn as the director of the Strategic Communications Unit was exorbitant.

He said it amounted to five or six newly qualified nurses.

Mr Kenny has said there was no need for the Government to set up the unit, which essentially amounted to a Fine Gael marketing department to complement its PR operation.