Taoiseach’s attacks mask humiliating retreat on communications unit

Leo Varadkar was in combative form in the Dáil when tackled about the embattled unit

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar indicated that the Strategic Communications Unit may be disbanded, or at least see significant changes to its remit. Photograph: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar indicated that the Strategic Communications Unit may be disbanded, or at least see significant changes to its remit. Photograph: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

 

The Taoiseach was in combative form in the Dáil, fully prepared to meet the anticipated attacks from Opposition leaders on his embattled Strategic Communications Unit.

“A lot of what the Leader of the Opposition has said has been personalised, it has been vituperative and it has even been venomous towards me and my staff and towards some people in the Civil Service,” Leo Varadkar said.

He maintained it “said a lot” about the Opposition that in the wake of the national crisis of the heavy snowfalls, they were only interested in scoring political points on the unit. Well, attack is the best form of defence.

Attack can also mask a retreat, if only in the interim. And the truth is that Varadkar and his Government are in a full-scale retreat on the unit. In the Dáil yesterday, Mr Varadkar again indicated that the unit may be disbanded, or at least see significant changes to its remit.

Even senior public service figures admit privately that the political independence of the Civil Service was endangered

He again conceded it was a distraction from the work of Government, usually the sign of an imminent death sentence. The €5 million budget for the unit, the Taoiseach said, “will be reduced further, if not eliminated altogether, depending on how the review goes”.

He could hardly have been clearer about where this is all going.

The furore over the unit has almost played itself out; the Dáil will rise for the St Patrick’s Day recess this week, and by the time it returns, it’s hard to see how there will be any political juice left in the controversy.

Duty of loyalty

The affair was not as contrived as the Taoiseach has made out. Even senior public service figures admit privately that the political independence of the Civil Service was endangered, if not destroyed as the sometimes hyperbolic accusations of the Opposition would have it.

It would be best to remember that the Civil Service has a duty of loyalty and service to its political masters; but the politicians have a corresponding duty not to put the Civil Service in compromising situations.

It should be noted that in the wake of that defeat for Mr Varadkar, his poll numbers shot up after successes in Europe and a bit of standing up to the British on Brexit

It has been a poor few weeks for the leadership of the Government, no doubt.

In summary, the launch of the national development plan and the national planning framework, envisaged as the major Government initiative for the first half of this year, has been undermined by the clumsy political management of an accompanying communications and advertising campaign.

For all Mr Varadkar’s personal popularity, and the continuing public interest in and approval of him, this is a significant political failure.

Spin over substance?

Those who know him best say Mr Varadkar tries to learn from these sort of mistakes. The key lesson for him is the danger of the spin-over-substance narrative about his Government taking hold.

It also marks the second time in the space of a few months that he has had to retreat after engaging in political combat with the Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. The best that can be said of it from Mr Varadkar’s perspective is that he recognised the writing was on the wall quicker this time that he did during the Frances Fitzgerald controversy before Christmas, when he was also forced to back down after threatening a general election.

It should be noted that in the wake of that defeat for Mr Varadkar, his poll numbers shot up after successes in Europe and a bit of standing up to the British on Brexit. With an EU summit coming up at the end of this month, Mr Varadkar will be given a similar opportunity to stand up for Ireland on the European stage.

That, of course, is the essential nature of being Taoiseach; an opportunity to redeem yourself – or to make fresh mistakes – is never far away.