In a spin: Leo Varadkar’s Strategic Communications Unit

The current controversy arose not because the government was communicating strategically, but because it was communicating politically

The secretary general to the Government, Martin Fraser (above), has been ordered by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to carry out a review of the controversial Strategic Communications Unit.

The secretary general to the Government, Martin Fraser (above), has been ordered by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to carry out a review of the controversial Strategic Communications Unit.

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For observers of the political art of distancing oneself from trouble, the signs were unmistakeable. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, recognising that the controversy engulfing his department’s Strategic Communications Unit was now “distracting from the work of Government”, has raised the prospect of its disbandment.

But it is unlikely to be as easy as all that for Varadkar to wash his hands of the furore. He is sure to face further questions in the Dáil today. The chance to paint Varadkar and his administration as being concerned with spin over substance is irresistible for the opposition; nor should the Taoiseach underestimate the political potency of such a charge. Opposition parties have made complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority and to the Standards in Public Office Commission. Oireachtas committees may get involved.

The Taoiseach has also ordered his own review of the unit, to be carried out by his department’s top civil servant, Martin Fraser, though – as Government Buildings made clear last week – Fraser was already charged with the oversight of the SCU. A review is of course the time-honoured political mechanism for defusing a political controversy. It is likely to have limited success in that regard, at least in the short-term.

There is an element of political knockabout to this affair but there are also key issues about how the civil service operates. This controversy arose not because the government was communicating strategically, but because it was – in certain instances at least – communicating politically.

Navigating the correct divisions between government and politics is a tricky business; especially so when it comes to communications and advertising. But it is precisely because these lines can be so easily blurred – wilfully or otherwise – that they need to be carefully policed. The civil service has rules about what its officers should do for politicians and what public money should pay for. It also has traditions and precedents to act as a guide. It is hard to see how a line has not been crossed in recent weeks by some of the content commissioned and paid for by the Government.

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