Thursday 16 August 2018

Varadkar set for talks amid calls to close 'undemocratic spin unit'

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

Kevin Doyle and Cormac McQuinn

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is expected to hold direct talks with the Secretary General of his department as part of a review of the controversial Strategic Communications Unit.

There is a growing expectation in Government circles that the SCU, dubbed the 'spin unit', will have to be disbanded or at least restructured.

The Irish Independent understands a number of Fine Gael TDs have privately expressed concerns to the Taoiseach that the political backlash over the €5m project is becoming unsustainable.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin embarked on a round of media interviews yesterday in which he described the SCU as "dangerous and not good for democracy".

The country's most senior civil servant, Martin Fraser, has been tasked with reviewing the unit's operation.

Sources say there is a "strong possibility" that he may recommend its disbandment or that its role be redefined.

The unit was the brainchild of Mr Varadkar during the Fine Gael leadership contest last summer.

He has always insisted good communications was a virtue, but admitted yesterday "it's become a distraction from the work of government".

Sinn Féin plan to place a motion before the Dáil this week seeking for the SCU to be scrapped as a result of its involvement in buying up advertorial space to promote the National Development Plan in local and national media.

Yesterday, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe put up a defence of the unit's work, giving no indication that it will be scrapped.

He remains "more convinced than ever that it vital for a government to be able to communicate with its own citizens regarding how they spend their money and implement their policies."

He referred to the way the government has delivered information about last week's snow storm.

"I think we have seen the success of that kind of approach across a very difficult period where our country was dealing with the very, very harsh weather and the great difficulty that was created over the last number of days," he said.

"I think that success will be built upon and the Taoiseach has implemented a review to deal with some of the concerns."

Speaking privately other ministers told the Irish Independent they have concerns that the controversy won't go away unless swift action is taken.

Fianna Fail plans another attack on the Taoiseach when the Dáil resumes today.

On RTÉ's Sean O'Rourke yesterday, Mr Martin said: "We want to disband it and might put our own motions forward on it.

"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."

Irish Independent

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