Leo Varadkar says his ‘spin unit’ was Fianna Fáil’s idea
Taoiseach defends cinema, newspaper advertising on National Development Plan
Leo Varadkar: “I learned from the masters on political communication. And that’s a strength, not a weakness.” Photographer: Cole Burston/Bloomberg
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar “learned from the masters” in Fianna Fáil about political communication, he told the Dáil on Tuesday.
The Taoiseach was speaking as more questions were raised about spending by the Government’s strategic communications unit to advertise Project Ireland 2040.
Mr Varadkar defended spending on marketing and advertising in cinemas and local newspapers about the National Development Plan amid Opposition accusations he was spending taxpayers’ money on political advertising for Fine Gael.
The strategic communications unit has been dubbed by the Opposition as the Government’s “spin unit”.
The Taoiseach said that in 2007 – the last time there was a national development plan – “a government decision was made to set aside a budget of €1 million to communicate to the public the content of the . . . plan including advertising”.
The Taoiseach added: “Interestingly enough, a body called the strategic communications group was established to monitor it all.”
Mr Varadkar told Labour leader Brendan Howlin: “It was certainly not my idea, Deputy . . . I learned from the masters on political communication. And that’s a strength, not a weakness.”
Mr Howlin said he had seen “very colourful pages in the Drogheda Independent – two full pages ‘brought to you by the Government of Ireland’”.
And he told the Taoiseach that “a friend of mine went to see Three Billboards over the weekend and before he could watch the movie, he had another billboard – an advertisement for the new National Development plan – that had to be endured”.
The Wexford TD suggested it was “simply political advertising” and asked if the Taoiseach had discussed the issue with the Standards in Public Office Commission, which monitors ethical issues in the political arena.
Mr Varadkar said he had seen the film on Sunday in the Lighthouse Cinema in Dublin, and there was an advertisement for the plan before the film started “but there were adverts for very many things”.
He insisted that the strategic communications unit did not “engage in any political advertising and we’ve been very clear on that”.
Mr Varadkar had earlier given details of the breakdown of staff in the various divisions of his department.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said there were more staff in marketing – 15 in the strategic communications unit – than in the department’s social policy section, which had 13 staff.
It is important that the Government gets its message across and I intend to make sure that happens
He described the unit as the only initiative from Mr Varadkar since he became Taoiseach, claiming it “trumps any other initiative in terms of staff or expertise recruited”.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald claimed the unit was the “propaganda arm of yourself as Taoiseach, your party Fine Gael and your electoral ambitions”.
Mr Varadkar replied: “It is important that the Government gets its message across and I intend to make sure that happens.”
He said the unit will “carry out its work objectively and without bias and will operate in accordance with the Civil Service code of standards and behaviour”.