The Taoiseach has faced renewed calls to disband his controversial communications unit amid angry exchanges in the Dail.
The leader of the opposition Micheal Martin accused Leo Varadkar of resisting the release of information over the Government’s contentious Strategic Communications Unit (SCU) and called for it to be scrapped.
The Fianna Fail TD said documents released through a Freedom of Information request showed how 180 million euro of advertising revenue would be channelled through the Taoiseach’s department giving the office enormous leverage with the media industry.
The unit has faced criticism after a furore around a public information campaign on the Government’s “Project Ireland 2040” infrastructure plan.
Political rivals claim paid-for stories placed in national and regional papers were not clearly marked as advertorial content.
That controversy fuelled persistent opposition claims that the unit is more interested in boosting Fine Gael’s profile than disseminating government information.
Mr Martin accused the Taoiseach of being in denial over the SCU.
“It is interesting that your department resisted every attempt to release this information and it was only released on the instructions of the information commission,” the Fianna Fail leader said.
He added: “The idea that the Taoiseach’s office would seek to centralise and control up to 180 million of communications spend across agencies and departments to channel it all through the Taoiseach’s office, that’s enormous purchasing power and enormous leverage for the Taoiseach office with the media industry.”
Mr Varadkar denied the claim.
He said the aim of the unit was to streamline communications not centralise everything, and there was never a proposal that specialist promotional agencies like Bord Bia should be controlled.
“That’s absurd,” the Taoiseach said. “That’s a political charge and that was never intended.”
Mr Varadkar said he appreciated that the unit, which was intended to better explain how government works, had become a distraction.
“I do appreciate that mistakes were made,” he said.
He added that that is why he had ordered a review.
It is set to be concluded before Easter.
A tightening of protocols around the use of advertising has also been ordered.
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald also called for the unit to be axed.
She said she wasn’t impressed with the Taoiseach’s political priorities and the 5 million euro allocated to the SCU could have been better spent.
“This communications unit is now mired in scandal and the Taoiseach can rant and rave and point fingers and talk about conspiracy theories but that is now where it’s at,” Ms McDonald said.
Ms McDonald added: “The Taoiseach’s spin unit has followed a strategy to promote Fine Gael in newspapers in a very underhand and unprincipled way by directing editors to present paid-for political advertising as regular news articles.”
The recently elected Sinn Fein leader said it was clear that the operation is not in the public interest.
“This unit was not about informing citizens, it was about promoting your party,” she said.
“It was not about news, it was actually about propaganda. It wasn’t done to benefit the people, it was done to benefit Fine Gael.”
Mr Varadkar accused the Sinn Fein leader of spin and said if she had any evidence of that effect she should present it.
The Taoiseach added that he would be willing to face questions about the unit at the Finance Committee in the coming weeks.