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communications unit

Taoiseach defends marketing of Ireland 2040 plan as opposition calls for answers

There have been calls for the Taoiseach’s officials to answer questions about the strategy at committees.

0173 North East Inner City Initiative_90537935 Taoiseach Leo Varadkar launches the first first annual report of the North East Inner City Initiative today. Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald was also in attendance.

TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR has been defending the government’s media strategy surrounding the promotion of its Ireland 2040 national development plan.

The government’s controversial Strategic Communications Unit is heading up a sweeping strategy to promote the plan across traditional and online media.

The amount being spent on the marketing push was the subject of a sharp debate between Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin last week.

This afternoon, Labour’s Alan Kelly called for officials from the Department of the Taoiseach to come before the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee to answer questions about the strategy, after a number of critical newspaper articles.

The row over the rollout of the promotion plan received coverage on the front-page of yesterday’s Sunday Times, while its sister newspaper, the Ireland edition of The Times, reported today that regional newspapers “were instructed not to make government advertorials look like independent stories”.

Asked about the issue at an event in Dublin today, Varadkar insisted it was ”right that the government would want to explain to the public what we’re doing and how money is being spent on their behalf”.

“Project Ireland 2040 is a €116 billion investment in the future of the nation as was the case with the last NDP back in 2007,” Varadkar said, referring to the development plan put forward by Bertie Ahern’s Fianna Fáil-led government.

There is an information campaign that is happening across the media at the moment ranging from public meetings in different regions to sectoral launches to advertising online and in papers.
Back in 2007, when a previous government had a similar NDP, they set up a dedicated information office and set aside a budget of a million euros to communicate and inform people about it so there’s nothing unusual about that
In relation to the stories that appeared in the papers today and at the weekend I checked up on them today.
I can confirm that there was no direction from my department or any official of my department to people or to editors to blur the line between the news and an information campaign.
In fact the only instruction was that anything appearing in the papers should clearly indicate that it was done in partnership with the government – I think people will have seen that.
Second to that, any interviews carried out with people – commentators, analysts and so on – were not carried out by civil servants at my department, they were carried out by journalists working for those newspapers.
Editors had full editorial control over that so I’m happy to clarify that those two stories that appeared today and yesterday were inaccurate.

The amount spent on the roll-out of the Fianna Fáil-led government’s plan in 2007 was the subject of a dispute between Varadkar and Martin in the Dáil chamber last week.

The Taoiseach claimed on Tuesday last that “the then Government made a decision to set aside a budget of €1 million in order to communicate to the public … the content of the 2007 plan, including for advertising”.

Martin returned to the chamber the following day to dispute that €1 million figure (which the Taoiseach repeated today). Martin said:

Yesterday’s conversation on the marketing unit was helpful because it allowed time to fact-check some of the Government’s statements. Approximately €340,000 was the amount spent on the launch of the 2007 plan. I checked a parliamentary question tabled at the time by Ruairí Quinn. This does not compare with the amount spent on Friday’s launch, which was by far the most expensive and extensive ever by a Government.

A Fianna Fáil spokesperson said this evening that Fine Gael were being found out in their “efforts to use taxpayers’ money to promote the narrow interests of the Fine Gael party”.

The Taoiseach, the spokesperson said in a statement, had reverted to his “usual play book attacking what he claims Fianna Fáil did or didn’t do more than a decade ago”.

The simple fact is that at a time when public services are under massive strain, with health waiting lists breaking all records and the country is in the grip of an unprecedented housing emergency, Mr Varadkar and Fine Gael think that it is appropriate to take and spend public money promoting their party. This is clearly an abuse, and we will be seeking answers.


Alan Kelly, who is Vice-Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said in his statement today:

Following advertisements in cinemas, national newspapers and regional newspapers, it is now vital that the Department of the Taoiseach come before the PAC to face questioning from members on the spending of public funds on the promotion of the Ireland 2040 project.
We need to discuss whether the deployment of a significant quantity of traditional and social media advertising by the Taoiseach’s Department amounts to an improper use of public funds for political ends. And also, whether the staff recruited to serve in the Strategic Communications Unit have been appropriately recruited under the Public Service Management Act.
Media reports today and over the weekend show the lengths the spin unit have went to to make sure that local newspapers were writing good news stories about the latest National Development Plan. It is not right that the Government are holding local media outlets in these type of strangleholds.

Timmy Dooley, Fianna Fáil’s communications spokesman, said he wanted the secretary general of the Taoiseach’s department and the head of the Strategic Communications Unit to come before another committee – the Oireachtas Communications Committee.

“What has transpired since the launch of Ireland 2040 just ten days ago is deeply concerning,” Dooley said.

The government appear to be using taxpayers’ money, exploiting the vulnerability of the newspaper industry to advance a narrow party political agenda.

The Strategic Communications Unit, set up by the Taoiseach with a view to streamlining the government’s communications, has come in for frequent criticism from the opposition benches since its inception.

The new SCU exists in tandem with the current Government Information Service (GIS), which runs all day-to-day communications concerning the Department of the Taoiseach.

The unit will cost some €5 million to run this year.

Read: Taoiseach’s new communications unit to cost €5m next year >

Read: ‘They’d have announced a new hinge on a door’: Not everyone is impressed with the €11 billion plan for health >

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