Tuesday 22 January 2019

Varadkar scraps PR unit, yet probe finds 'no evidence' of FG promotion

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Frank McGrath
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Frank McGrath
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is scrapping his new communications unit, despite a review finding that its staff did not breach civil service rules.

The Government has bowed to Opposition pressure and is to wind-down the unit after weeks of sustained assault amid claims that Strategic Communications Unit (SCU) civil service staff were being used to promote Fine Gael.

Questions were raised about how the SCU promoted the Government's Project Ireland 2040 plans and the use of photographs and quotes from Fine Gael politicians in paid-for newspaper coverage.

Department of the Taoiseach secretary general Martin Fraser was tasked with reviewing the SCU during the storm of controversy over its work.

The review found no evidence of a breach of the Civil Service Code by staff in the SCU.

Mr Fraser says a probe of the work on Project Ireland 2040 "does not find any evidence of a breach of the Civil Service Code by civil servants in the SCU, whether by seeking favourable coverage for Fine Gael candidates or otherwise".

Mr Fraser's review was discussed at Cabinet yesterday and the Government accepted its recommendations.

The report also said editors at newspapers that ran paid-for content relating to the Project 2040 campaign confirmed the choice of photos and quotes was determined by them at a local level and was not subject to any outside influence.

The Government has accepted Mr Fraser's recommendation the SCU should be "wound down" and the Taoiseach's Department should revert to the traditional Government Information Service (GIS) with a smaller budget, fewer staff and a more limited role.

There will be a transition period that will end in July 2018 while the review's recommendations are being implemented.

The €5m SCU budget allocation is to be reduced by 50pc to €2.5m.

Last night, Mr Varadkar's spokesman insisted that the SCU had "done a lot of good work".

But he said the SCU was "becoming a distraction in other areas and that was because of the noise around it".

Mr Fraser's review found that surplus staff should be redeployed within the Taoiseach's Departments or other departments.

There are to be no new national campaigns run by SCU.

Where money has been committed but not yet spent, it should be redirected to "non-contentious campaigns" like Healthy Ireland or Brexit.

The Government Information Service should continue to have a co-ordinating and supporting role for national, cross-government communications, but such campaigns should be led and funded by the relevant line department.

The Departments of Public Expenditure and Housing will be responsible for leading future communications for Project Ireland 2040.

Streamlining of communications should continue and reform projects involving training are also to carry on.

The project to amalgamate Government websites to a single web portal project Gov.ie is to continue.

Irish Independent

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