Varadkar attacks Labour’s ‘points-scoring’ over communications unit

Taoiseach responds as Brendan Howlin writes to Sipo about the new entity

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has dismissed a decision by Labour leader Brendan Howlin to write to the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) about the new Strategic Communications Unit as "political points-scoring".

Mr Howlin has sought clarification from Sipo on the Strategic Communications Unit, which he described as Mr Varadkar’s “personal spin operation” after it emerged in the budget that the unit would receive €5 million in 2018.

The Labour leader has asked Sipo to clarify whether a significant quantity of social-media advertising on behalf of the Department of the Taoiseach amounts to an improper use of public funds for political ends. He also queried whether the unit's staff were being recruited in line with the Public Service Management Act.

Mr Howlin said he wrote to the secretary general of the Government last week on these issues and was awaiting a response. He said the disclosure of the €5 million allocation for 2018 in the intervening period required an intervention by Sipo.

‘Political stunt’

Speaking at University College Cork (UCC) on Friday morning prior to chairing at the university the first Cabinet meeting to be held in Cork in 12 years, Mr Varadkar played down the issue and accused Mr Howlin of a political stunt.

“It is the case for as long as I can remember, and for as long as any of us have been involved in politics or in the business of press and media, that Government departments and Government agencies have communications budgets.

“It is really just party political points-scoring, to be honest. I think everyone will see that for what it is. I am sure the Labour Party has a communications budget, no doubt in part funded by the taxpayer . . . my focus today is on Brexit and on health reform.”

Mr Varadkar was welcomed to UCC by university president Prof Patrick O’Shea and given a brief tour of the university’s Victorian quadrangle, before the Cabinet met to discuss Brexit and the Sláintecare health plan.

*A group of up to 100 students mounted a protest across the quad from where the Cabinet meeting was being held but the demonstration passed off without incident.

*Article amended at 6.20pm on October 15th

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times