Monday 28 May 2018

'Dangerous and not good for democracy' - Micheal Martin calls for Strategic Communications Unit to be disbanded

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins

Wayne O’Connor

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has called on Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to disband the government’s Strategic Communications Unit because of concerns about the politicisation of the civil service.

Mr Martin said the centralisation of government communications through the Department of the Taoiseach was “dangerous and not good for democracy”.

He said it was clear the Strategic Communications Unit was being used to promote government and Fine Gael instead of working as a public information system.

“We want to disband it and might put our own motions forward on it,” Mr Martin said.

“Essentially it has become a propaganda unit.

“We cannot and should not be using civil servants to promote the ideas of a political party. This was always a danger as to where we were going to end up and we have ended up there.”

Leo Varadkar said his department’s five million euro Strategic Communications Unit had become a 'distraction' (Niall Carson/PA)
Leo Varadkar said his department’s five million euro Strategic Communications Unit had become a 'distraction' (Niall Carson/PA)

Speaking on Today with Sean O’Rourke on RTE this morning Mr Martin said the confidence and supply arrangement his party has with government never anticipated the establishment of the Strategic Communications Unit but the deal does not prevent Fianna Fáil shining a light on it.

However, the party had other options available separate from pulling out of the confidence and supply arrangement.

“We want change and there are many ways one can effect change,” said Mr Martin.

His comments  came after the Taoiseach said the Government's controversial communications unit could be disbanded.

Leo Varadkar said his department's five million euro Strategic Communications Unit had become a "distraction" and scrapping it was one option that would be considered by an ongoing review into its functioning.

The unit has faced criticism after a furore around a public information campaign on the Government's "Project Ireland 2040" infrastructure plan.

On Monday, Mr Varadkar said scrapping the unit was one option being considered by the review.

"That's something that's going to have to be examined," he told RTE Radio One.

"The unit was set up with a view to modernising and professionalising government communications - it's had some success in that regard.

"It was set up as a unit to better explain the work of the government and now it's become a distraction from the work of government."

However, Mr Varadkar insisted there was "scant evidence" the unit was using public money to promote Fine Gael, and he accused rivals of focusing on the controversy as a way to distract attention from the benefits of the Project Ireland plan.

He added: "I think there were things that could have been done better so I issued very clear instructions as to how things should operate in the future when it comes to any paid-for advertising by government.

"Some things were too loose and that's why I have put in place those new rules so those things don't happen again and also we are carrying out a review, led by the sec gen, and all options are on the table for that review."

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