In the aftermath of Budget 2018, it wasn’t the big ticket items in health, housing or social protection that got the Dáil in a tizzy.
Instead, the Government’s €5m allocation to the new Strategic Communications Unit got Fianna Fáil in a spin which in turn wound up the Taoiseach.
While designed to manage and encourage positive Government messaging, the Strategic Communications Unit has — in its short existence -— attracted nothing but bad publicity.
The creation of the new Government spin unit has already been identified as such an easy target from an opposition point of view it could prove to be Mr Varadkar’s downfall.
While Wednesday’s budget could be described as a sprinkler system which spread a little money very lightly to as many as possible, it was the €5m handout which drew the most controversy during Leaders’ Questions yesterday.
Mr Martin claimed there was “some surprise” that the unit would receive such a sum, stating it was not an insignificant figure when contrasted to the €3m for Deis schools and €2.5m for the Irish language.
Outside the Dáil, funding for the Irish language has sparked fury among Gaeilgeoirí up and down the country who now feel that while Mr Varadkar has worked very hard at learning the cúpla focail he has far less of a grá for doling out money for our national language. But Mr Varadkar wasn’t asked about that yesterday, instead he got himself caught in hoops over the Strategic Unit.
Almost every second day the new unit, with a staff of five, has been brought up in the Dáil — clearly seen as surefire way to score political points against the Government — and yesterday was the turn of Fianna Fáil to attack the pet project.
Micheál Martin, who described it as a “propaganda unit”, asked why the chief spin doctor John Concannon was not appointed through the usual system.
“While we understand the Taoiseach’s obsession with communications, important issues arise here about the politicisation of our Civil Service which must be avoided at all costs. The manner of the establishment of this unit undermines that principle,” Mr Martin said.
The Taoiseach strongly denied he had appointed Mr Concannon but in the same breath explained he had “approached him and asked him if he would be available”.
That must have got Mr Concannon and his team cranking up the messaging machine.
Mr Varadkar said Mr Concannon had been appointed by the secretary general of the department, creating an easy comeback for the Fianna Fáil leader.
“Is the Taoiseach saying he contacted Mr Concannon to ask him if he was available for this job and that, miraculously and without the Taoiseach saying it to him, the secretary general came to the same conclusion and made the appointment?”he asked with a wry smile.
While publicity does come at a price, it seems that just like the Mastercard ad good publicity is priceless.
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