Strategic Communications Unit was ‘damaging’, review finds

New report also exonerates the controversial unit from claims of politicisation

Director of the SCU John Concannon. Photograph: Alan Betson

Director of the SCU John Concannon. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

A review of the Government’s Strategic Communications Unit (SCU) concluded that continuous controversy surrounding it, in addition to a Dáil resolution for its disbandment, warranted its winding down.

It also said the political debate surrounding the unit had taken up a large proportion of the Department of the Taoiseach’s time and energy, and was “damaging” its focus on priority areas such as Brexit, Northern Ireland and the economy. The report was issued after Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told Cabinet that the unit would be wound down by July. All 15 staff will be redeployed to other areas of the Civil Service.

At the same time the review, which was conducted by the State’s top civil servant, exonerated the unit completely from claims of politicisation.

It found there was no basis to allegations made about the Project Ireland 2040 campaign, in particular that the SCU had breached the Civil Service code and blurred the lines between Government and party political activity by using taxpayers’ money to promote the appearance of Fine Gael politicians in advertorials paid for by the Government.

The review was carried out by the secretary general at the Department of the Taoiseach, Martin Fraser, with a detailed investigation by assistant secretary at the same department, Elizabeth Canavan, on the entire media campaign for Project Ireland 2040.

“Her report does not find any evidence of a breach of the Civil Service code by civil servants in the SCU, whether by seeking favourable coverage for Fine Gael candidates or otherwise,” said Mr Fraser.

“Although there was no attempt by the SCU to place Fine Gael candidates in advertorials, this did occur in a small minority of newspapers as a result of independent editorial decisions.”

Legitimate concern

Mr Fraser indicated that the appearance of photographs of Fine Gael candidates in newspapers, even it if was never intended, was “unsatisfactory and it has given rise to legitimate concern and criticism”.

Mr Fraser said he could not ignore “the strongly expressed views of Opposition leaders who may serve in a future government, including the recent vote of Dáil Éireann calling for the disbandment of the SCU”.

Elsewhere he noted that while the Opposition motion (calling for the SCU’s disbandment) was not binding on the Government, “it is of course an important matter that must be taken into account in considering the future of the unit”.

Mr Fraser said the SCU was a relatively small part of the department’s operations and was not among its strategic priorities.

He continued: “However, dealing with the intense political and media interest in the work of the SCU has come to dominate much of the time of the staff of the unit and of senior management. By way of illustration, the SCU has been the subject of 203 Parliamentary Questions, 63 Freedom of Information requests (of which 24 are completed), as well as a number of other debates, Leaders Questions in the Dáil, and a large number of press queries.

“This is now actively damaging our ability to effectively focus on our strategic priorities, such as Brexit, Northern Ireland, the economy and improving public services.”

“It has also given rise to an inaccurate perception of what the department’s actual role and priorities are within Government.”