By Juno McEnroe, Elaine Loughlin, and Daniel McConnell
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has all but confirmed the demise of his much-feted Strategic Communications Unit (SCU), saying it is “distracting” from the work of Government.
Mr Varadkar conceded that a review of the €5m SCU will include looking at whether it should be disbanded.
“It is evident to me, as something established on my watch, we are now at a point that it has become a distraction to the workings of Government,” he said in response to questions from the Irish Examiner last night.
“If I am spending 15% or 20% of my time dealing with queries about a communications unit in my department, that is distracting me from the things I think are much more important.”
Rejecting a charge from Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, Mr Varadkar said that he did not see the unit’s actions as a “danger to democracy”.
“I certainly don’t see it as a danger to democracy, that is a bit over the top,” he said. “There is a review taking place by the secretary general of the Government and I expect it to conclude in the next couple of weeks, certainly by the end of the month. We will take it from there.”
Fianna Fáil’s front bench will today consider whether to table a motion to abolish the Government’s spin unit amid the continued fallout over media advertising for Project Ireland 2040.
Mr Varadkar is also facing calls from within Government to end the controversy as Independent Alliance Government whip Sean Canney told the Irish Examiner he “wouldn’t cry” if the SCU was scrapped.
The review follows criticism over the way advertisements were placed in newspapers for Project Ireland 2040, with instructions from a subcontracted company that advertorials had to look like normal stories. There have also been concerns about Fine Gael politicians who featured in the State-paid ads.
Mr Martin told RTÉ’s Sean O’Rourke it was time to call a halt to the SCU.
“We want it dispanded so whatever it takes to disband it, we might develop our own motions, and put our own motions on the slab,” he said.
Mr Martin also called for the unit to be depoliticised and for the unit to be taken out of the Department of an Taoiseach.
“We cannot and should not be using civil servants to promote the message of a political party,” he said. “It’s the same in a referendum.”
“In my view, it’s time to call a halt.”
Asked yesterday if the special PR unit would be scrapped, the Taoiseach responded: “That is something that is going to be examined.”
Requests have been made to two Oireachtas committees to now consider concerns about the SCU while the State’s ethics watchdog SIPO is examining a complaint too.
Fianna Fail’s front bench will today discuss whether to formally launch a Dáil motion on the controversy. This follows a decision by Sinn Féin to do so.
Meanwhile, Independent Alliance TD Sean Canney said the SCU has become a “huge distraction and it is now counterproductive”.
He said the focus was now on “how we deliver the message and not the message we are delivering” and said this was apparent with the Project Ireland 2040 launch.
Asked whether it was now time to scrap the SCU he said: “I would not be crying over it” if it were to be discontinued.