Stephen Donnelly defends analysis of Twitter mentions by his department

Minister says it is ‘reasonable’ to look at department’s communications in pandemic

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said   aid that communications from the department during a pandemic were ‘important’. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said aid that communications from the department during a pandemic were ‘important’. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

 

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has defended an analysis carried out for him showing how he was not being mentioned on the Department of Health’s Twitter feed in January.

Mr Donnelly said that communications from the department during a pandemic were “important” and that it was “reasonable to look at those communications to make sure we are doing as much as we can all the time”.

The Irish Times reported that the analysis by Mr Donnelly’s spokesman in January showed that the Minister had not been mentioned in any of the department’s tweets and compared this with mentions that Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris got on his department’s Twitter feed.

The department’s interim secretary general Robert Watt in turn raised the matter with the department’s head of communications Deirdre Watters in an email on January 14th.

“The Minister completed an analysis of the department’s Twitter feed. There is no reference to the Minister as you can see. We need to discuss,” Mr Watt told Ms Watters in the email.

Disquiet

Asked whether his mentions on Twitter should be occupying a Minister’s mind during a pandemic, Mr Donnelly said that it “certainly isn’t anything that is occupying my mind at all”.

Mr Donnelly told Virgin Media News in an interview that it was “not at all” important that he should be mentioned in the department’s tweets.

“It is important that we look at what is coming out [from his department]. We are in a global pandemic. People look to the department, they look to the HSE for the right advice so I think it is important that that would be kept under review all the time,” he said.

There was disquiet within Government circles on Monday that the Twitter analysis compiled for Mr Donnelly was shared with Mr Watt on the same day in January that almost 4,000 cases of Covid-19 were reported and when the country was battling the third wave of the pandemic.

Labour leader Alan Kelly said that it was “deeply concerning” and “frankly shocking and embarrassing” that Mr Donnelly had the number of mentions he was getting on his department’s Twitter account “as a priority” during one of the most difficult periods of the pandemic.

“Micheál Martin needs to have a word or to assess this situation. It might seem trivial and minor but it is not trivial and minor because it shows the space where this Minister is at and was at, and what he was thinking on the worst days of the pandemic and where his priorities were at,” Mr Kelly said.

Social Democrats co-leader Róisín Shortall said that it was “hard to understand” how the Minister regarded the number of mentions on the department’s Twitter account as “being in any way important” when the third wave of Covid-19 was “raging” after Christmas.

“It’s even harder to imagine how there was time to do an analysis of this when there were so many urgent priorities for the Minister and his department,” she said.

Final record

Mr Donnelly told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland that he did not ask for the analysis to be carried out and that it was conducted by one of the officials in his department.

The analysis was carried out by Mr Donnelly’s spokesman and communications adviser Páraic Gallagher after he started working for the Minister in mid-January because he thought the department’s Twitter feed was focused on the National Public Health Emergency Team.

He assessed the Twitter accounts of a number of Government departments. However, the final record of analysis shared within the department – a one-page graph of bar charts – compared references in tweets from just two departments, Health and Higher Education.

The analysis shows Mr Harris, a constituency rival of Mr Donnelly’s and his predecessor at Health, was mentioned 10 times in the Department of Further Education’s Twitter feed.

Mr Donnelly was not mentioned in any of the Department of Health’s tweets checked, according to the analysis. The period assessed is not revealed.