Furious Dáil row over communications unit
The Dáil erupted in a furious row over the Government's Strategic Communications Unit (SCU) as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar came under mounting pressure to disband the controversy-struck PR operation.
As Opposition leaders claimed the civil servant-staffed SCU was used to promote Fine Gael, Mr Varadkar insisted such allegations are "innuendo" and "conspiracy theories".
He hit back, accusing Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin of being "venomous" towards him and members of the civil service. Mr Varadkar did concede that the SCU has become a "distraction" from the work of the Government and "mistakes were made".
He said a review of the unit, being carried out by Department of the Taoiseach secretary general Martin Fraser, is to be concluded before Easter. He indicated he would be open to appearing at the Oirechtas Finance Committee to face questions on the matter.
The SCU is at the centre of a storm over claims its PR campaign for the Government's Project Ireland 2040 plan became a vehicle for promoting Fine Gael politicians. There are also allegations that regional newspapers were told by a private advertising subcontractor to make advertorials look like news reports.
Concerns over the campaign were raised by Independent ministers Denis Naughten, Katherine Zappone and Shane Ross. Mr Varadkar announced a review of the SCU last week.
Cabinet discussed the issue and a spokesperson for the Independent ministers said they are satisfied the review has been set up and are awaiting its outcome.
In the Dáil, Mr Martin complained Mr Varadkar had caused a "blurring of the lines" between the independence of civil service and promotion of a political party. He alleged the Taoiseach's office was trying to centralise control over around €180m in communications spending across Government, including bodies like Bord Bia and Revenue. He asked if Mr Varadkar now accepts the SCU should be abolished.
Mr Varadkar claimed Mr Martin showed "misplaced priorities" in raising the issue at a time when the country has "just gone through the worst snow storm in 35 years". He denied there is a plan to bring PR for agencies like Bord Bia under his department's control.
Mr Martin said nothing is more fundamental than civil service independence, adding: "I will decide what I raise and when I raise it."
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said the SCU is "mired in scandal". She added: "The Taoiseach can rant and rave... and talk about conspiracy theories, but that is now where it is at." She claimed there was a tactic to exploit the financial situation of regional media. Mr Varadkar accused Ms McDonald of engaging in "fake news", saying she should supply some evidence of her claims.