Communications unit €5m budget could be ‘eliminated altogether’

Leo Varadkar accuses Micheál Martin of ‘venomous’ attack during Leaders’ Questions

 Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has accused Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin of  being ‘venomous’ in the Dáil. File photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has accused Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin of being ‘venomous’ in the Dáil. File photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

The €5 million budget for the Government’s controversial Strategic Communications Unit could be “eliminated altogether” depending on the outcome of the review ordered by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

In a signal that the unit may be wound down, Mr Varadkar told the Dáil that while it had been set up to better explain how Government worked, it had now become a distraction.

During heated exchanges when the Opposition repeated demands for the abolition of the unit, Mr Varadkar accused Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin of casting a slur and of making personalised “venomous” claims against him, his staff and some civil servants.

However, he acknowledged that “mistakes were made”, controls were too loose and problems arose in the unit and said this was why he had ordered a review of its operations, which would be completed by Easter.

Doesn’t it say a lot when people all over the country are working hard to deal with the national [weather] crisis, this is the only thing the Opposition are interested in

Mr Varadkar also said he would appear before the Oireachtas Finance Committee to answer any relevant questions.

Mr Varadkar was challenged by Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, who compared the unit’s budget with spending on mental health.

Rejecting her claims, he said his department was one of the few that had its budget cut. “I imagine that €5 million budget will be reduced further, if not eliminated altogether, depending on how the review goes.”

The Opposition claimed the Government used taxpayers’ money to promote Mr Varadkar and Fine Gael.

Streamlining

Mr Martin said that Mr Varadkar claimed to operate at arm’s length from the unit and “concealed a lot of information” about his involvement and that the Taoiseach had refused freedom of information requests from the media.

He also said that “what no one realised was that the Taoiseach’s office would seek to centralise and control up to €180 million” of Government advertising and communications across all departments.

Mr Varadkar said the idea for the unit was first advanced in 2011 at the Global Irish Economic Forum, to modernise, streamline and professionalise communications in Government departments.

The unit aimed to “collapse dozens of websites” into one site.

He said there were 700 press and information officers in the public service “many of whom are not trained to do the job they are asked to do”, hundreds of expensive external consultancies and “too many little empires”.

Mr Varadkar also questioned Mr Martin’s priorities in raising the issue.

“Doesn’t it say a lot when people all over the country are working hard to deal with the national [weather] crisis, this is the only thing the Opposition are interested in.”

Ms McDonald said the review of the unit should not be carried out by the secretary general of the Taoiseach’s department, Martin Fraser, because he was compromised due to his general responsibility for oversight of the unit.