Embarrassment for Taoiseach as Dáil votes by 85-49 to disband ‘spin unit’
Varadkar not obliged to act as Government loses non-binding vote
The Dáil has voted by 85 votes to 49 for the Government’s controversial strategic communications unit (SCU) to be disbanded.
The vote follows a two-hour debate on a Sinn Féin motion that the SCU, dubbed the “spin unit” by the Opposition, should be stood down.
Fianna Fáil voted with Sinn Féin, smaller parties and Independents on the proposal to close the unit of 15 staff with a €5 million budget.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar indicated when he replied to the debate on Tuesday that the Government would ignore the motion.
The result is an embarrassment for Mr Varadkar but it is only a symbolic victory for the Opposition as the Government is under no obligation to act on such votes.
Since the minority Government was formed almost two years ago it has suffered dozens of defeats on private members’ motions.
However, the development puts some pressure on Mr Varadkar given the criticism he has received over the unit, which sparked a furore when it was claimed that the public purse was funding advertising for Fine Gael election candidates who featured in ads for the National Development Plan - Project Ireland 2040.
The Taoiseach retorted that “mud was slung simply in the hope that some of it would stick”.
During the debate, Mr Varadkar pointed to the review of the unit which is being undertaken by his department’s secretary general Martin Fraser and is expected to be completed by Easter.
The Taoiseach has inisited the review is the right and proper way to examine the issue. “I do not believe it is proper for the Dáil to redesign the internal structure of a Government department,” he said, adding that such a moved by the House would represent a blurring of the lines between politics and the civil service.
Mr Varadkar has maintained that the unit was established to communicate the work of Government but Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty said an independent panel should examine and recommend the best way to do that.
Mr Doherty said the Taoiseach had told the Dáil previously that the unit would be cost neutral but then it emerged that it would have a €5 million budget this year.
Mr Varadkar is expected to face questions next Thursday when he appears before the Oireachtas Finance Committee to address questions about his department’s budget.