Tuesday 23 July 2019

'Opposition are slinging mud in the hope some of it'll stick' - Taoiseach defends controversial communications unit

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)

Wayne O'Connor and Kevin Doyle

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has hit out at opposition figures who have been critical of his controversial communications unit, saying they are "slinging mud in the hope some of it will stick".

He claimed attempts by opposition parties to have the Strategic Communications Unit disbanded blurs the lines between politics and the civil service and that the Dáil should not have a say in how Government departments are run.

Taoiseach Varadkar spoke as the Dáil looks set to vote for the abolition of the controversial Strategic Communications’ Unit after Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party indicated their support for a Sinn Féin motion.

Mr Varadkar made his comments in the Dáil this evening after flying back from a meeting in Berlin with Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"I I believe the behaviour of the opposition on this matter does not reflect well on their behaviour or their standards. Mud is slung simply in the hope that some will stick," he said.

"Decent hard-working civil servants and public servants have had their probity questioned and have even been accused of corruption and been accused of being involved in party politics, even though there is no evidence to support that.

"I could go on but I think it is obvious the opposition has no substance, has few alternative policies and even fewer solutions. There is no alternative to this government so they just go on the attack instead."

Earlier, in his absence, Tánaiste Simon Coveney, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe, Health Minister Simon Harris and Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy defended the unit on the Government’s behalf.

Mr Coveney accused Sinn Féin of hypocrisy, arguing that former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams was supportive of the SCU when it was suggested it might help pass a referendum on Irish unity.

"Good clear communications is a virtue of a Government," he said.

The Tánaiste said government departments are spending €170m a year on communications.

"The whole point of this, was to spend some money to ensure that we provided value for money in those efforts," he said.

Similarly Mr Donohoe attacked Sinn Féin, saying criticism of the awareness campaign for Project Ireland 2040 was because the party don’t like that there is a plan.

"I didn't hear them make the same point when the government was using the SCU to provide information about benefits which might be available to the unemployed.

"At the heart of the politics of Sinn Féin is creating the atmosphere of permanent crisis, and that nothing in our country is capable of getting any better,” he said.

Pearse Doherty. Photo: Tom Burke

Tabling the motion, Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty said the Taoiseach and his ministers have an addiction to spin.

He said the unit represents “a shameful misuse of the public purse" when money would be better spent on schools, hospitals and housing.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said: “Given the scale of current problems in vital areas such as hospital waiting lists, homelessness, non-functioning Northern institutions and Brexit it is regrettable that we have to spend valuable parliamentary time discussing government communications.

“However there is no alternative because the Taoiseach’s approach to this issue is central to how he is running the government and to the government’s efforts to push media coverage away from more serious issues.  We’ve had nine months of this behaviour and it’s time for it to end.”

He said the Taoiseach needed to face up to the “squalid reality” that the Government has sought to use public money “to compromise the boundary between public information and propaganda”.

Mr Varadkar has already asked the country’s most senior civil servant to review the operation of the SCU.

It is expected that Martin Fraser will conclude that change to the unit’s operation are needed but not its abolition.

However, the Fianna Fáil leader if the motion is carried on Thursday then Mr Varadkar faces a choice of respecting the will of the Dáil or carrying on regardless.

“If the Taoiseach is sincere in wanting to talk about substance rather than spin then he should close down his new marketing unit and devote the staffing and funding to tackling real issues.

“Alternatively the Taoiseach can drag the controversy on.  It is his choice,” he said.

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