Sunday 25 August 2019

Civil servants in Varadkar spin unit are warned against 'politics'

CIVIL SERVANTS: Martin Fraser behind President Michael D Higgins and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Aras An Uachtarain
CIVIL SERVANTS: Martin Fraser behind President Michael D Higgins and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Aras An Uachtarain

Jody Corcoran and Philip Ryan

Ireland's top civil servant has moved to make several changes to the operation of the Taoiseach's controversial communications unit after what he says are "understandable concerns" raised about its "political impartiality".

The development comes as it has emerged that Fine Gael TDs have criticised the Government for showing a "lack of empathy" on the homeless issue following widely criticised remarks made by Leo Varadkar last weekend.

This first indication of unhappiness in Fine Gael with Mr Varadkar's style of leadership follows a difficult week for the party, which saw the resignation of a national executive member for making derogatory online remarks about women.

Martin Fraser, the secretary- general to the Department of the Taoiseach, also outlined how he had taken a "number of measures" to "protect" the "core values" of the civil service within Leo Varadkar's new Strategic Communications Unit.

The most significant "clarification" is to broaden research into the public response to government initiatives away from "voters" aged 18 and over to include young people not yet entitled to vote. This is intended to minimise the possibility that research paid for by the State may be used for electoral purposes.

Mr Fraser has also met the unit's civil service staff to "reinforce the importance" of other measures, taken by him at the outset, of "maintaining our independence and political impartiality".

Staff at the unit have been instructed not to meet politically appointed special advisers and "on no account" to engage with "political party officials or activities".

In a letter to opposition leaders, Mr Fraser has also revealed that research, still being validated, indicates that €170m a year is being spent on communications across Government.

In one of its first actions after the election of Leo Varadkar as Taoiseach, the Government took a formal decision on September 6 to establish the communications unit as a civil service function within the Department of the Taoiseach.

It was Leo Varadkar who suggested the appointment of a marketing expert, John Concannon, to head up the unit, although other appointments were made through the reassignment of civil servants on secondment. However, the Government recently allocated €5m to the unit for next year, a detail which emerged in the small print of the Budget.

Varadkar, who is criticised by the opposition for alleged political 'spin', initially said the unit would be cost neutral. It is staffed by 11 civil servants.

Mr Fraser has ordered a government communications review which he believes will ultimately create savings.

Last week, the Taoiseach was accused of attempting to "spin" fall-out from the housing crisis to "normalise" homelessness when he told a FG conference that levels in Ireland were low compared to international standards.

It has since emerged that OECD data explicitly states international homeless levels are "not easily comparable due to different counting methods" and that published figures should not be taken as a 'league table' of homelessness.

Now it has emerged that at a Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting last week, the Government was criticised for showing a "lack of empathy" on the homeless crisis.

The Sunday Independent understands that a number of TDs and senators spoke out about the perception that Fine Gael was showing a lack of compassion when it came to homeless and housing strategy.

The unease went largely unreported last week as Fine Gael was engulfed in controversy related to social media posts by Barry Walsh, an executive council member, who has since resigned citing "trial by media" but expressing deep regret for the tone and language he used in certain tweets.

In a recent letter to Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin and Labour leader Brendan Howlin, Mr Fraser admitted that the "establishment of the new unit has led to a degree of public comment, both in the media and in the Dail".

The unit's objectives included public "research and insight" into government initiatives. However, "specific concerns" have been raised about a tender to survey the public. So Mr Fraser has "reviewed" this and a "number of clarifications" have been made.

The general public data will now not be confined to "Irish voters aged 18 and over". The definition of Government will also explicitly exclude a "political party or individual minister" and research will be "published and available to anyone".

Mr Fraser also states that to "guide this work" he has initiated research for the overall use of resources for communications across Government.

"It is reasonable to state that current resource usage includes spending of over €170m per annum, over 600 staff, as well as a large number of external contracts, over 200 individual state entities with unique branding, 220 campaigns, and over 450 websites," he added.

Sunday Independent

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