Leo Varadkar has conceded the €5m strategic communications unit (SCU) may be gone next year as he accused the opposition of hurling “venomous” slurs at him and his staff over the unit.
There were testy exchanges in the Dáil during continued debate about the SCU which also saw the Taoiseach say he would appear before an Oireachtas Committee and answer questions about the embattled unit.
Questions have arisen over how newspapers were asked by a media company for the SCU to run advertisements which featured Fine Gael politicians and were not clearly labelled as commercial.
The recent adverts were to promote Project Ireland 2040, plans and promises by the Government to spend over €116bn on transport, roads, housing, and other major initiatives in the decades ahead.
For two weeks, the opposition has attacked the special unit and €1.5m ad spend, with concerns raised about the use of taxpayers’ money for allegedly political purposes.
Speaking in the Dáil, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin claimed there was evidence that the Taoiseach’s office was trying to centralise and control €180m worth of communications power across departments to influence the media.
Following weekend newspaper reports, this included “the politicisation of agencies such as Bord Bia, IDA Ireland, and Revenue”, Mr Martin claimed.
Mr Varadkar claimed Fianna Fáil and the opposition’s obsession with the unit was a “misplaced” priority in the aftermath of the worst snow storm in 35 years in this country.
He insisted the SCU was set up to streamline communications across the Government, train staff, and use the 700 press officers across agencies and departments.
Nonetheless, he conceded there had been mistakes.
“I appreciate that mistakes were made, that controls were too loose and, as a result, problems arose,” he said. “For that reason, the unit is under review. The secretary general is undertaking that review and will conclude before Easter.”
Furthermore, replying to Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, he admitted the unit may be gone next year if its €5m budget is scrapped.
“My department is one of the few departments that had their budgets reduced for 2018, and I imagine that €5m budget will be reduced further, if not eliminated altogether, depending on how the review goes,” he said.
Mr Varadkar also defended staff working in his department, attacking what he said were “slurs”.
“There have been a lot of slurs bandied around,” he said. “A lot of what the leader of the opposition has said has been personalised, it has been vituperative and it has even been venomous towards me and my staff, and towards some people in the civil service.”
The communications, public accounts, and finance Oireachtas committees have all called for Department of An Taoiseach secretary general Martin Fraser, SCU director John Concannon, and Mr Varadkar to appear and answer questions on the controversy.
While communications and public accounts will discuss requests this week, Mr Varadkar said yesterday that he would be willing to appear before the finance committee.
Separately, Mr Varadkar claimed that an email carried by a daily newspaper showing instructions to newspapers on how to run special advertorials was actually from a Creative Ireland August 2017 campaign which, he said, pre-dated the SCU and was not related to Project Ireland 2040.
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