Varadkar says Government likely to ignore motion to disband SCU

SF motion calling on Government to stand down unit has backing of other Opposition parties

Sinn Féin TD Pearse Doherty: he referred to the SCU  as the Government’s “spin unit’’. Photograph: The Irish Times

Sinn Féin TD Pearse Doherty: he referred to the SCU as the Government’s “spin unit’’. Photograph: The Irish Times

 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has indicated the Government will ignore a Dáil motion calling for the disbandment of its controversial Strategic Communications Unit (SCU).

He was replying in the House on Tuesday to a Sinn Féin motion calling on the Government to stand down the unit. It is receiving the support of other Opposition parties and groups, including Fianna Fáil, and will be passed by the House in a vote on Thursday.

Mr Varadkar referred to the review being carried out by secretary general to the Government Martin Fraser, which, the Taoiseach said, would be completed by the end of the month.

“That is the right and proper way to examine such issues,” said Mr Varadkar. “I do not believe it is proper for the Dáil to redesign the internal structure of a Government department.” He said this would be a blurring of the lines between politics and the civil service.

Earlier, Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty referred to the SCU as the Government’s “spin unit’’.

He said the Taoiseach, Mr Fraser, head of the unit John Concannon and any other relevant individuals should come before the Public Accounts Committee to answer questions and account for the spending of public money on what he described as a vanity project.

Mr Doherty said an independent panel should examine and recommend the best method of communicating the work of government that was above politics and based on value for money. He said the Sinn Féin motion was about accountability.

Bold claims

The Taoiseach, said Mr Doherty, had said in the House in the past that the SCU would be cost neutral. “These were the bold claims made by the Taoiseach before it turned out that, in fact, the unit would cost some €5 million this year. Other claims were then made about the wholesome and ethical nature of the unit and they have proven to be false also.”

He said assurances were given that the SCU would be completely free from any and all Government influence. Yet media reports over the past number of weeks had poured cold water on that and disproven it robustly.

He said the money spent on the SCU could fund 1,000 extra community employment places and reverse the cuts some years ago to small schools. It could also introduce a living wage across the civil service.

“That is what annoys and angers people,” said Mr Doherty. “They know that money spent on the Leo spin unit is money out of their pockets, and money that could be and should have been put into public services.”

Mr Varadkar said the behaviour of the Opposition on the matter did not reflect well either on its sincerity or standards. “Mud was slung simply in the hope that some of it would stick.”

No substance

He said decent, hard-working civil and public servants had their probity questioned. The Opposition, Mr Varadkar added, had no substance, few alternative policies and even fewer solutions.

Asked about the controversy earlier on Tuesday when he was in Berlin, Mr Varadkar said: “The review is under way; we’ll be opposing the Opposition motion tonight. I’d expect that will go to Cabinet preferably next week or in the next couple of weeks.

“I think there is a misunderstanding: this is not a political unit. It is the Strategic Communications Unit, it is part of the civil service, and civil servants answer parliamentary questions pertaining to their function.”