herald

Sunday 22 April 2018

Leo's controversial PR unit to be scrapped by the summer following review

Mr Varadkar’s spokesperson noted the SCU’s “good work”
Mr Varadkar’s spokesperson noted the SCU’s “good work”

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's controversial €5m Strategic Communications Unit (SCU) is to be effectively scrapped following a review by the State's most senior civil servant.

The review was conducted by Department of the Taoiseach secretary general Martin Fraser in the wake of heavy criticism of the PR unit by the Opposition in recent weeks.

Questions were raised about how the SCU promoted the Government's Project Ireland 2040 plans amid claims that paid-for coverage promoted Fine Gael candidates.

Mr Fraser has recommended the SCU should be "wound down" and the Taoiseach's department should revert to the traditional Government Information Service with a smaller budget, fewer staff, and a more limited role.

There will be a transition period that will end in July 2018 while the review's recommendations are being implemented.

The €5m SCU budget allocation is to be slashed in half to €2.5m.

Last night, a spokesman for Mr Varadkar said the Taoiseach had acknowledged the SCU was becoming "a distraction" and said that was why Mr Fraser was asked to conduct the review.

He insisted the SCU was "doing a lot of good work".

The SCU is headed by John Concannon, the PR guru behind tourism initiatives like The Gathering and the Wild Atlantic Way.

He is to stay in place during the transition period.

Mr Fraser's review was discussed at Cabinet yesterday and the Government accepted its recommendations.

A statement last night said that the review found no evidence of a breach of the Civil Service Code by staff in the SCU "whether by seeking favourable coverage for Fine Gael candidates or otherwise".

Redeployed

It also said that editors at newspapers that ran paid-for content relating to the campaign confirmed that the choice of photos and quotes was determined by them at a local level and was not subject to any outside influence.

Mr Fraser's review found that surplus staff should be redeployed within the Taoiseach's department or other departments. There are to be no new national campaigns run by the SCU.

Where expenditure has been committed but not yet spent it should be redirected to "non-contentious campaigns" like Healthy Ireland or Brexit preparation, according to the review.

The Government Information Service should continue to have a co-ordinating and supporting role for national, cross-Government communications, but such campaigns should now be led and funded by the relevant line department instead.

The Departments of Public Expenditure and Housing will be responsible for leading future communications for Project Ireland 2040.

Streamlining of communications should continue and reform projects involving training are to continue, as will the project to amalgamate government websites to a single web portal, Gov.ie.

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