Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was “blindsided” by several of his ministers yesterday in the Cabinet after they called for the strategic communications unit (SCU) to be kept.
Sources have said there was strong support for the much criticised unit to be retained, despite the Taoiseach’s strong suggestion on Monday that it will be disbanded pending a review.
Several ministers, both Fine Gael and Independent, spoke of the need to avoid any further use of the unit for narrow party gain but that the move to modernise Government communications was too important to jettison.
Among those who spoke strongly in favour of retention were Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe and super junior minister Finian McGrath, it is believed.
“There was strong support for it to be kept,” a source said. “Most would have felt it would have gone the other way following what the Taoiseach said on Monday but no, a lot of people spoke in favour of it.”
Fianna Fáil are concerned that abolishing the unit may not stop spin, and have vowed to hold the Government to account.
The Taoiseach has commissioned a review of the SCU — which he set up — after a series of advertisements publishing the Government’s Project Ireland 2040 plan were not clearly marked as advertorial when they appeared in regional and national newspapers. A number of these advertisements also featured Fine Gael candidates.
However, Fianna Fáil public expenditure spokesmanDara Calleary agreed that even if the SCU is disbanded, the same staff will remain in place and the activities could continue.
“That is a concern, absolutely, but I think now what is evident is that there is a level of awareness around the activities of Government communications,” he said.
“The Government will need to be aware going forward that we will be constantly monitoring communications and if they vere into what has become a partisan political project again we will be right down on top of them.”
Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, and other members of the opposition have called for the abolishment of the SCU.
Members of Sinn Féin, led by Donegal TD Pearse Doherty, held a demonstration outside Leinster House yesterday and called on Mr Varadkar to “bin the spin” and disband the unit.
Mr Doherty also called on the secretary general of the Department of An Taoiseach, Martin Fraser, to appear before the Public Accounts Committee to answer questions on the unit.
Also calling for the unit to be axed, Mr Calleary dubbed it a “vanity project” to enhance the image of the Taoiseach and the Government.
“All good news would now come from the Taoiseach or members of the Cabinet, bad news they would go missing for, but good news would be centralised through the Cabinet,” he said. “We are very clear in our wish that this unit be disbanded and the respect and the independence of government agencies who do their work on a daily basis be respected.
“If it wants to use Government money to promote Fine Gael candidates then it is going to have to justify that.”
Mr Calleary said Fianna Fáil will consider Sinn Féin’s bill and would be willing to support it if it means change will be enacted.
“We want this moved on quickly, this review should be moved on quickly it is clear that there is no confidence in Government communications as long as this issue is going on, to use the Taoiseach’s own words it’s a distraction from far more important business that needs to be dealt with,” said Mr Calleary.
“What we are looking at here is an abuse of taxpayers money.”
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