Varadkar to come under further pressure over ‘propaganda unit’

Sinn Féin to table Private Members’ motion calling for the unit to be disbanded

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: said the Strategic Communications Unit  had become a ‘distraction from the work of Government’.  Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: said the Strategic Communications Unit had become a ‘distraction from the work of Government’. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is likely to face further challenges in the Dáil today from Opposition TDs who believe the Government is in retreat in the controversy over his department’s Strategic Communications Unit.

The unit was the subject of severe criticism last week following the publication of advertorial-style advertisements in newspaper publicising the national development plan, seen by opposition parties as promoting Fine Gael politicians.

Fianna Fáil sources said they expect their party leader Micheál Martin to question a review of the Strategic Communications Unit ordered last week by Mr Varadkar. There is concern that it is to be carried out by the most senior civil servant in his department, Martin Fraser, who was already head of a group that was responsible for the oversight of the unit.

Mr Varadkar indicated yesterday that the future of the unit was in doubt after the completion of the review, when he said it had become a “distraction from the work of Government”.

Asked how he would respond to Opposition demands that the unit be scrapped, Mr Varadkar replied: “Well look, that’s something that’s going to have to be examined.”

However, he insisted that there was no truth to Opposition claims that the unit had been promoting Fine Gael.

Last night at a press conference in Government Buildings with Luxembourg’s prime minister, Xavier Vettel, Mr Varadkar dismissed claims by Mr Martin that the unit was a “a danger to democracy”.

“I certainly don’t think it’s a danger to democracy, I think that’s a bit over the top,” he said.

However, he added that the unit had become “a distraction” from the work of government.

“A lot of the criticism has been politically charged,” he said.”The Opposition accuse me of spin, but they’re pretty good at it themselves.”

‘Propaganda’

Mr Martin had earlier said the unit had become “essentially a propaganda unit” and that the Taoiseach had set up the unit in his department to “make politics about branding and marketing”.

“This isn’t about Government information. This is about Government promotion,” Mr Martin said. The promotion was “designed to make Ministers look better, to make the Government party Fine Gael look better,” he added.

Emails released to the Sunday Business Post show that the Taoiseach’s principal adviser Brian Murphy both advised caution when the unit was being set up last summer and also wondered if “key communications themes” such as the “republic of opportunity” would be used in the unit’s work.

The “republic of opportunity” is a political slogan that was used extensively by the Taoiseach during the Fine Gael leadership election campaign and during his first months as Taoiseach.

Sinn Féin announced that it would table a Private Members’ motion in the Dáil calling for the unit to be disbanded. The party’s finance spokesman Pearse Doherty said the public relations campaign for the national development plan has “confirmed what many of us already knew – that the Government’s Strategic Communications Unit is a highly expensive PR unit, paid for by the taxpayer for the benefit of the Taoiseach and Fine Gael.”

“Sinn Féin will move a Private Members’ motion in the Dáil at the earliest opportunity to call for the disbandment of the PR spin machine and we will be seeking Micheál Martin’s and Fianna Fáil’s support to get the motion passed,” he said.