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Leo admits 'mistakes were made' and 'controls were too loose' with his communications unit

Varadkar came under fire during Leaders’ Questions when opposition parties called for the unit to be disbanded.

Image: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR told the Dáil today that “mistakes were made” with his Strategic Communications Unit (SCU).

Varadkar came under fire during Leaders’ Questions when opposition parties called for the unit to be disbanded.

The unit has come under increased scrutiny in recent weeks as a result of the fallout from a government advertising campaign around the Ireland 2040 National Planning Framework.

Questions were raised last week about how advertorials in newspapers were presented during the €1.5 million rollout of the plan.

The SCU headed up a sweeping strategy to promote the plan across traditional and online media.

The Ireland edition of The Times reported that regional newspapers were directed by an ad agency to ensure the ads appeared as regular news items.

Following on from this, Varadkar ordered a review of the operations of the SCU.

‘A distraction’

The Taoiseach admitted today that the debate around his communication’s unit was becoming a distraction.

I appreciate that the unit that I set up to better explain how Government works and what it does has now become a distraction from the work of Government. I appreciate that mistakes were made, that controls were too loose and as a result, problems arose.

During a heated exchange with the Taoiseach today, Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin said there is “nothing as grave or as fundamental as the independence of our civil service”.

He accused the Taoiseach of setting up his “spin unit” in order to grab the “good news”.

Hitting back at Martin, the Taoiseach said it said a lot about the opposition leader’s priorities that he is raising his communications unit following one of the worst storms Ireland has seen in 35 years.

He accused Martin of throwing around ”slurs” about civil servants working in his department.

“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. I regret this is the tone that he has adopted, but he has. Deputy Martin has made a lot of allegations, based largely on innuendo and conspiracy theories,” he said.

It wasn’t just Fianna Fáil that had scathing words for the Taoiseach this afternoon. Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald also called for the unit to be shut down.

“I believe that the Taoiseach doth protest too much on this matter,” she said.

“This communications unit is now mired in scandal. The Taoiseach can rant and rave, he can point the finger and he can talk about conspiracy theories but that is now where it is at,” she added.

Varadkar also took issue with Martin stating on the radio yesterday and his department had concealed information from being released through the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act – something he said is illegal and would not happen.

The Sunday Business Post reported at the weekend that it had to battle for information relating to the SCU to be released by the department. In the end, the decision was appealed to the Information Commissioner, who overturned the decision and released the documents.

The Taoiseach told the Dáil today that the law clearly states that civil servants decide what information should be permitted for release under the Act.

‘No conspiracy’

A government spokesperson doubled down on the Taoiseach’s position today, stating that while advisors to ministers would be informed about FOI requests, “it is not the case that their views would be sought”.

Clarifying the Taoiseach’s position, the government spokesperson said that “any suggestion that the government is up to some sort of grand conspiracy is categorically not the case”.

It is understood that Ministers Katherine Zappone, Denis Naughten and Shane Ross raised concerns with the Taoiseach last week – one day before the Taoiseach announced that a review of the unit would take place.

The Secretary General of the Department of An Taoiseach is undertaking the review which will conclude before Easter.

Just under half of people trust the government>

‘A distraction’: Review will look at abolishing the Strategic Communications Unit>

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