Butt out on strategic communications unit, Varadkar tells Dáil after vote loss

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will defy a Dáil vote to disband the controversial strategic communications unit (SCU), insisting its existence is not the business of TDs.

“It is not a competence of the Dáil to determine how individual departments are structured,” his spokesman told the Irish Examiner.

The Dáil’s spending watchdog, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), wants to grill Mr Varadkar over the future of the unit.

The decision, after TDs voted 85 to 49, called for the controversial, €5m spin unit to be dismantled.

Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, and Labour all voted against the SCU’s continuation, but Mr Varadkar rejected any such calls, saying an internal review of the unit is to be presented to Cabinet next week.

The review, conducted by Martin Fraser, secretary general to the Government, is unlikely to conclude it did anything wrong, but minor changes should be made, according to sources.

The PAC, however, is not impressed and moved yesterday to invite Mr Varadkar to appear before it to explain the spending of taxpayers’ money.

However, while the PAC wants Mr Varadkar to appear, he is due before the committee on finance next week and chairman, John McGuinness, has signalled his intention to press the Taoiseach on the matter.

In a statement to the committee yesterday afternoon, PAC chair and Fianna Fáil TD Sean Fleming said the Dáil vote means the committee is now “required” to act on its previous plans to question Mr Varadkar.

PAC members demanded a meeting with Mr Varadkar and with other key officials, after a string of SCU-related controversies, including the Ireland Project 2040 advertorials in newspapers, and how the unit is exceeding its remit to advise on daily political activities.

Mr Fleming had initially delayed any formal invite, because Mr Varadkar had said he would address concerns at a quarterly meeting of the finance committee in the coming weeks.

However, in the aftermath of yesterday’s vote, Mr Fleming said the situation has now changed and that the PAC is obliged to demand the Taoiseach appears before it, with a date in the first week after the Easter recess likely.

“The Dáil has voted strongly, in relation to the SCU, that Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, and the ‘sec gen’ should appear before PAC at the earliest possible date to account for spending of public money by the SCU,” said Mr Fleming.

“Clearly, the Dáil has passed a motion, requesting the Taoiseach to attend as soon as possible, along with the secretary general of the Department of the Taoiseach [Martin Fraser].

“At the meeting, two weeks ago, we already invited the secretary general, and I said we would await the outcome of the vote. But, in light of the Dáil vote, this committee is required, in my opinion, now, to formally invite the Taoiseach. It’s not for the committee to ignore the Dáil motion.”

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