Monday 14 October 2019

Civil service 'politicisation' a real concern over Leo's spin unit

The controversy over the Strategic Communications Unit is far from over, writes Jody Corcoran

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (Brian Lawless/PA)
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (Brian Lawless/PA)
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

If Leo Varadkar thinks he has weathered the storm, he is mistaken. The snow will melt, but there will be further consequences to his 'spin' unit's promotion of the national development plan.

The only question is where the damage will end.

The plan itself has been overshadowed by the linked promotion of the Fine Gael party, ministers, TDs and, extraordinarily, even election candidates.

In the great scheme of things, damage done to the perception of the plan is neither here nor there. The public is dubious enough about it anyway.

In wider terms, though, the 'Government of Ireland' brand promoted by Varadkar's Strategic Communications Unit (SCU) is also tarnished.

And if that is so, then can government itself, or the permanent government, be far behind? That is one of the real concerns in this controversy: the 'politicisation' of the civil service to promote the national development plan to the wider benefit of Fine Gael.

The plan's 'advertorial' presentation in national and local press, and one regional newspaper group in particular, has caused widespread concern, the repercussions of which may be to hole the SCU below the waterline.

We will await a review of the SCU by Martin Fraser, secretary-general of the Taoiseach's department, with interest.

But if the unit must go as the price to safeguard the integrity of the civil service, then so be it.

In political terms, however, the Great Snow of 2018 may also be recalled as the time the honeymoon ended for Leo Varadkar.

A tonal shift is already evident. The political press which, until now, had given him a relatively easy ride, did not like the way the SCU sought to present the national development plan by buying newspaper space nationwide and then dictating the terms to promote the plan.

This shift will lead to a more critical and overdue analysis of Varadkar's leadership style, and such analysis is bound to have broader political implications.

Some of us have long highlighted his penchant for 'spin'; now others are doing so, and that includes Cabinet members.

By that, I do not just mean the Independent Alliance and other Independent ministers, but Fine Gael ministers too, who want far more focus on implementation than presentation or 'spin'.

The Independents were always uncomfortable with the SCU, and saw it as little more than an attempt to promote 'Project Leo' first and Fine Gael, rather than the stated intention to promote the work of government.

Last month Varadkar opened the new Microsoft campus at Leopardstown, south Dublin, a 'good news' event, a photograph of which duly appeared on his personal Twitter account.

He was joined by Fine Gael's Arts and Culture Minister Josepha Madigan, in whose constituency the facility is located, but there was no sign of Transport Minister Shane Ross, also of Dublin South.

I am given to understand that the SCU invited Ross too, but he declined to attend.

Independents are concerned their ethos is being subsumed, or swallowed whole into a marketing wheeze called the 'Government of Ireland', otherwise known as Fine Gael.

And who can blame them? The road to oblivion is long littered with smaller parties in government.

So, what will happen next? You can expect Fianna Fail and Labour to pile further into the controversy again this week.

There will be questions about who from the SCU met with whom in the media; when advertising agencies became involved, and under what criteria, and what other Government departments knew, specifically the Department of Finance.

Complaints have also been made to the Standards in Public Office Commission, which could result in Fine Gael returning taxpayers' money; and to the Advertising Standards Authority, which may have a thing or two to say about the decisions of various 'whizz-kids' behind the promotion, all of whom can expect to appear before an Oireachtas Committee soon.

So this controversy is set to run, but where it ends, and who ends up most damaged, nobody yet knows.

Sunday Independent

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