Varadkar defends Project Ireland 2040 publicity campaign

Government spokesman says there will be no change in campaign despite criticism

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar launching  Project Ireland 2040 at Sligo’s Institute of Technology.  Photograph: Alan Betson

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar launching Project Ireland 2040 at Sligo’s Institute of Technology. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Complaints about the Government’s advertising campaign for the national development plan are a matter for an oversight body of senior civil servants, a Government spokesman has said.

Following questions to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, the Government spokesman said there would be no change in the advertising campaign, which has been strongly criticised for its promotion of Fine Gael politicians.

Opposition criticisms have focussed on the Strategic Communications Unit (SCU), a new group of civil servants in the Department of the Taoiseach set up by Mr Varadkar.

The spokesman said t the production of advertorial-style articles for local newspapers was a “devolved competence” which was the responsibility of the local newspapers themselves.

He disputed claims that papers have been told to make the advertisements look like news stories, and said complaints were a matter for the secretary general of the department Martin Fraser, and for a group of senior officials who oversee the operations of the SCU.

Earlier in the Dáil, Mr Varadkar said any Government-sponsored content in the media should clearly show its source.

“If somebody is interviewed, as a general point, they should be told [if] they are being interviewed for a commercial feature,’’ he added.

Ethics watchdog

The Taoiseach was responding in the Dáil on Tuesday to questions from Mr Martin on the Government’s publicity campaign promoting Project Ireland 2040.

Standards in Public Office (Sipo), the State’s ethics watchdog, has been asked to investigate if the campaign had broken rules that bar civil servants from political work.

Mr Martin said some local newspapers had featured advertisements masquerading as news articles, in which Fine Gael candidates were prominently featured.

However, Mr Varadkar said the Government’s SCU had entered into media partnerships for the campaign, and the organisations involved had editorial control over what was published.

“Nobody in the unit suggested any particular person should be interviewed whatsoever. And nobody in the unit had any editorial sign-off on the articles before they were published.’’

Public money

Mr Varadkar said good communications was a virtue, and that it was right that proper governments should be able to inform the public of what was happening and how public money was being spent. “I often meet people who say to me the Government is not communicating right and is not getting its message across.’’

The Taoiseach rejected a claim by Mr Martin that the publicity campaign was the most expensive launched by a government. Mr Varadkar said the most expensive was a campaign run by the Fianna Fáil-Green coalition on climate change, which cost €15 million.

He said the Transport 21 campaign, also launched when Fianna Fáil was in power, cost €3 million. The campaign promoting Project Ireland 2040 would cost about €1.5 million.