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'Any government worth its salt has done this' - senior figures exult in Leo's new 'strategic communications unit'

The establishment of a new media relations unit has been something of a pet project for Leo Varadkar since he took up office in June.

Pictured is Minister Leo Varadkar standing under a sign that says HIM Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, pictured in February 2017 Source: RollingNews.ie

Updated 20.06

THE GOVERNMENT HAS confirmed the establishment of its new ‘strategic communications unit’ (SCU).

The new entity will exist in tandem with the current Government Information Service (GIS) which deals with all communications concerning the Department of the Taoiseach and will continue to run day-to-day communications.

Much debate has been generated by the new media unit, with the opposition in Leinster House previously alleging that the SCU amounts to little more than a ‘spin machine’ for Leo Varadkar’s own department.

Announcing officially that the establishment of the new unit had been agreed upon by Cabinet, Varadkar said that “good communications is a virtue and there currently exists a deficit when it comes to awareness of people’s entitlements and how their money is being spent and what government  is actually doing”.

“I am determined, therefore, that our communications internally within government institutions and externally to the public will adhere to highest international standards,” the Taoiseach added.

A democracy is only as strong as the relationship of trust between government and citizens.  Communication is key to that relationship.

The unit has been mooted as something of a personal project for the Taoiseach since he took up office in early June.

Varadkar has long been the focus of accusations that public image and ‘spin’ are higher priorities for him than other political concerns.

However, he claims that the new unit will incur no additional expense for the exchequer, and will be funded entirely from within “existing allocations”.

While government sources continue to state that the new communications unit will require “no additional spending”, the redeployment of high-level civil servants in John Concannon (the marketing guru behind the Wild Atlantic Way who is set to head the unit) and Andrea Pappin will leave vacancies that need to be filled.

It’s understood that members of the Independent Alliance, as well as independent Ministers Katherine Zappone and Denis Naughten (who himself is in charge of the Department of Communications) have “no concerns” about the new unit’s establishment.

Coalition 2030 Denis Naughten Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

Government press secretary Fearghal Purcell meanwhile described the creation of the new unit as being “best practice”, saying that he had been pushing for such a streamlining of communications ‘for years’.

‘Worth its salt’

“Any government worth its salt has done this,” he said.

Government sources have previously said that GIS is ‘not fit for purpose’ when it comes to dealing with the changing environment of the media landscape. GIS has privately been described as being “reactive” which was believed to have been suitable during the recession, but not anymore.

The SCU, meanwhile, will be led by a civil servant at Assistant Secretary grade (Concannon, who will command a salary of between €122,313 and €139,728), reporting directly to the Secretary General at the Department of the Taoiseach Martin Fraser.

Its three stated aims, per the government announcement, are: streamlining communications for citizens, developing and delivering major cross-government communication campaigns, and improving the communications capacity across government.

How those aims differ from those of the media relations teams already in place across the various government departments remains to be seen.

“It is also envisaged that the work of the unit will deliver savings and efficiencies in communication expenditure for government, as has been achieved in other countries,” today’s statement concludes.

With reporting from Christina Finn

Read: Confirmed: Irish Water to refund water charges to customers by Christmas

Read: Sean Spicer claims to be ‘one of the most popular guys in Ireland’

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