The Strategic Communications Unit (SCU) has also been involved in training civil servants, inputting directly into department management board meetings, and drawing in senior officials for its communications strategy.
The revelations in the Irish Examiner throw into question a defence by the Taoiseach that the SCU is operating at “arm’s length” and will raise concerns about the blurring of the lines between the civil service and the new PR division.
Emails released under freedom of information show how the SCU is stretching its reach right into the nerve centre of departments and government decision making, at very senior levels.
The unit, led by marketing guru John Concannon, was even asked to participate in the controversial public services card project with the ID system under fire and receiving “an amount of public attention”.
Fianna Fáil’s public expenditure spokesman Dara Calleary said the emails show “the level of control the Taoiseach is trying to put over spin within government” with his new unit.
Emails between Mr Concannon, the SCU, and senior department officials, reveal fresh concerns, including:
- The SCU drafting a parliamentary answer for then tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald, instead of her staff, which was about justifying the existence of the unit itself. The same wording was used, after the SCU told a senior department senior official “grateful if you could use this version”;
- Mr Concannon and the SCU oversaw plans for a health event launch in Mr Varadkar’s constituency relating to the new children’s paediatric outpatient and care unit at Connolly Hospital, Blanchardstown;
- The Department of Public Expenditure told the unit that the controversial public services card was attracting “an amount of public attention” and sought the unit’s help for a PR campaign.
- The SCU repeatedly tried to get ministers and their secretaries general to attend meetings, it trained senior civil servants, and was also asked to help the “anxious” short-staffed rural affairs department.
Mr Calleary said the email exchanges show the Taoiseach with his new unit was “trying to ensure every minister is on the same page as him”.
He added: “Furthermore, this issue of the SCU writing parliamentary replies is a direct interference in the parliamentary responsibility of a department by the Government spin unit. The Tánaiste’s office already has enough staff to do all that work.
“And the fact that emails are going to secretaries general or to remind senior staff to get with the programme, gives a further indication of the Taoiseach’s personal obsession that his image is the Government’s image.”
The €5m unit has 15 staff and was set up not long after Mr Varadkar was made Taoiseach last year. It came under fire recently over the launch of Project Ireland 2040 and advertorials put in newspapers.
Mr Varadkar says the unit is there to co-ordinate government communications but he agreed to a review, including potentially scrapping it, after the advertorials scandal.
The emails will raise more questions about the extent of the SCU’s control of government actions, particularly its role in managing parliamentary duties, PR launches involving the Taoiseach himself, and pressure applied on ministers and their secretaries general to co-operate with the new regime.
Sinn Féin will table a Dáil motion this evening to disband the unit, while calling on Mr Varadkar and his secretary general to appear before a committee and answer questions.
A new panel, the party says, should instead examine the future of government communications using taxpayers’ money. Fianna Fáil may support the motion, increasing the pressure on Mr Varadkar and his ministers to scrap the SCU.
Dara Calleary said the new emails revealed the unit had crossed a line.
“It shows that this department [unit] has gone far beyond what its remit of co-ordinating government communications. It is now controlling government communications.”