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Varadkar surprised that the opposition are 'more obsessed about his PR than he is'

The Strategic Communications Unit is to hire an additional three staff members.

Leo Varadkar defending the establishment of his new communications unit this afternoon.
Leo Varadkar defending the establishment of his new communications unit this afternoon.

TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR has again defended the establishment of his new Strategic Communications Unit (SCU).

Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald, Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin and Labour’s Joan Burton all rounded on the Taoiseach this afternoon, accusing him of setting up a “spin” machine within his own department.

The opposition members wanted answers about staffing, costs and whether the top jobs were filled through the Public Appointments Service.

The new SCU exists 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, which has been described 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 is a higher priority 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”.

‘Political propaganda unit’

McDonald told the Taoiseach the new communications unit is just a “souped-up PR function” for government, while Bruton said it is a “political propaganda unit”. Martin said it is “the largest political spin operation in the history of this the Irish government”.

The Fianna Fáil leader asked about the appointments already made to the new unit, which include well-known marketing expert John Concannon – the man behind the 1916 commemorations, the Wild Atlantic Way, The Gathering and Creative Ireland – and Andrea Pappin who previously headed up the government’s Brexit information service and was previously involved in the government’s action plan for jobs.

Varadkar said all the employees in the new unit are public servants, who have been redeployed to their new positions, at no additional cost.

Salaries 

Concannon works at the assistant secretary grade which commands a salary of between €122,313 and €139,728, while Pappin is on an assistant principal higher grade of between €83,519 and €102,212.

Varadkar told the Dáil today that in addition to Concannon and Pappin, another six people have been hired to work in the SCU. A further three people are due to be hired shortly, he explained, adding that these appointments would be advertised through the Public Appointments Service.

Martin said the Taoiseach could not “dress it up” in any other way, stating that these are political appointments.

Burton questioned how the top jobs were filled, asking were these positions also advertised.

Varadkar confirmed that the establishment of the new unit was “absolutely my idea”, adding that he suggested Concannon (who was at the time the head of Creative Ireland) head up the new unit.

He clarified that he did not have any part in staffing the other positions, stating that this was done by the department’s secretary general, adding that it is not the Taoiseach’s role to “decide how people are staffed in the public service”.

Civil servants 

The Taoiseach said it was “pretty normal” for those working in the civil service to be redistributed.

Arts Minister Heather Humphreys faced questions on the issue by Burton later in the day, who asked her when she first heard that Concannon was leaving his job in Creative Ireland.

Humphreys explained that Concannon told her in person that a new job opportunity had arisen, and she wished him well. The minister also confirmed that her department will shortly be advertising for his replacement as the head of Creative Ireland.

She said she expects there will be “great interest” in the job.

Since the establishment of the new unit, the Taoiseach has maintained that it will be “cost neutral” and has not cost anything to date.

However, Burton pointed out that the jobs that the civil servants vacated to take up their new roles in the SCU will have to be filled, highlighting that this is the case with finding a new head of Creative Ireland.

Doing some quick mathematics in the chamber, Burton said that with the two top jobs taking salaries of some €120,000 and with six people in the unit taking an average of €70,000 a year, the cost on salaries alone would amount to some €420,000.

She said this did not include the tender for €160,000 – advertised last week – which is being awarded to a company to gauge how the public perceives the government.

“I think this is wrong,”said Burton, who added that she could not agree with funds being diverted to the new unit when there are health and housing crises ongoing.

She said the unit is being used to spread “good news” from government, and questioned whether the Taoiseach’s face would be appearing on the side of buses telling the public to “be happy”.

Best practice internationally

Varadkar defended the new unit, stating again that communications is a “virtue”. He said the new unit is “best practice” internationally, adding that similar models exist in Holland and the UK.

He was at pains to state that it will not carry out any political messaging, and will reduce duplication across all government departments.

The Taoiseach said he believed the new unit would reduce expenditure in the long-term, adding that the public had the right to know the full story about what the government was doing and where their money is being spent.

He said he found it “bizarre” that Burton would say the media love him and that he loves the media, stating that when he opens up the Sunday newspapers every week, he did not feel like the media loved him, or that he loved them for that matter.

The Fine Gael leader said he was also surprised that the opposition were “more obsessed” about his PR than he is.

Read: ‘Any government worth its salt has done this’ – senior figures exult in Leo’s new ‘strategic communications unit’>

Read: Varadkar says his new separate PR unit has cost nothing to date>

 

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