FF Ard Fheis: €5m strategic communications 'to be scrapped if FF wins next election'

By Fiachra Ó Cionnaith, Political Correspondent

Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin will immediately dismantle the Government's controversial €5m strategic communications unit if he gains power after the next general election.

Mr Martin confirmed it will "absolutely" be the first step he will take in office if he wins the next election, saying "the Government is more obsessed with communications than delivering real results".

Speaking to reporters on the first night of the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis at the RDS in Dublin, Mr Martin said the reality is no one believes the strategic communications unit is anything except a propaganda tool for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

He said its €5m cost - which was only revealed deep within the budget 2018 documents despite Mr Varadkar's insistence it was "cost neutral" - should instead be spent on fixing the housing crisis, Brexit and other equally serious crises.

Asked if his first step in government if he wins the next general election would be to dismantle the strategic communications unit, Mr Martin said: "Yes, I absolutely would, because it tells the wrong story. It tells the story that the Government is more obsessed with communications than delivering real results in terms of housing, health, broadband, even Brexit.

"I raised last week in the Dáil in a genuine way that I am taken aback by the fact that the Revenue Commissioner’s report [on Brexit and the risk of a hard border] was not published.

"I still have to receive a rationale for why some great work by the Revenue wasn’t published.

"It’s somewhat paradoxical that the Government makes a big deal about communications, yet hides from the public a fairly important, comprehensive piece of work that one of our own State agencies did, which could inform people across the board on probably the greatest threat facing this country, namely Brexit."

Picture: Conor McCabe Photography

Earlier, Mr Martin said controversial former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern will not be considered for any "distinguished service medal" and has zero chance of returning to the Fianna Fáil fold.

He ruled out both possibilities as he described suggestions today Mr Ahern should be considered for the grassroots medal as "mischievous" and something that will not be considered.

In a message to rank and file Fianna Fáil members in the lead up to this weekend's ard fhéis at the RDS in Dublin, party headquarters asked for names of individuals at local level who are deserving of a medal to honour their service.

In response, Mr Ahern's former O'Donovan Ross cumann said the controversial ex-taoiseach - who is no longer a member of the party - should be considered.

Party sources said the suggestion will not be considered in any way as Mr Ahern is not a member of the party, and will not be discussed formally at the ard fhéis as it is not a motion.

And, while the return of Mr Ahern gained attention yesterday, Mr Martin repeated the stance last night, saying the former taoiseach will not return to the party and is not eligible for a medal in his honour.

"I think that was a rather mischevious letter coming in yesterday [from the cumann]. Those awards are for grassroots volunteers... who down through the years have given loyally to the party through their service," Mr Martin said.

When it was pointed out by a journalist that Mr Ahern has "knocked on every door, he's been up every tree", Mr Martin said "I think that was someone else" before adding:

"Those of us including Bertie who had the honour of serving in high office, that's our reward, it's a great privilege to serve in office and that should be reward enough.

"My position [ruling out any return of Mr Ahern to Fianna Fáil] hasn't changed on that."

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