Varadkar concerned about Sinn Fein ‘conflict of interest’ with RTE funding

The Future of Media Commission recommended that the TV licence be replaced by Exchequer funding.

Sinn Fein president Mary-Lou McDonald standing outside the parliament buildings at Stormont speaking to media (out of frame)
Sinn Fein Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald at Stormont. PICTURE: Oliver McVeigh/PA (Oliver McVeigh/PA)

It would be a “huge conflict of interest” for Mary Lou McDonald to be taoiseach in a situation where RTE relied on direct Exchequer funding, Leo Varadkar has claimed.

Mr Varadkar told the Dail on Tuesday that he was concerned about legal action against RTE taken by Ms McDonald and other Sinn Fein representatives.

In July 2022, the Future of Media Commission recommended that the current TV licence system for funding public service media be replaced entirely by Exchequer funding derived from general tax revenue.

Ms McDonald had called on Mr Varadkar to make a decision on the recommendation without delay.

However, the Taoiseach told the Dail on Tuesday: “Exchequer funding means that the Government of the day would control how much money goes to RTE and the public service media.

“And I’m looking across at somebody who might be the Taoiseach in the next government who’s currently suing RTE and would have a huge conflict of interest and people behind you who have sued RTE and taken a lot of money out of RTE, which was ultimately taxpayer money by the way, as you pointed out.

“And I think that’s a real concern. We see all over the Western world, democracy being undermined by governments that want to control the purse strings around the media and that’s a real concern that I would have to go down that route.”

He was responding to a question from Ms McDonald who said there had been no accountability since the RTE financial controversy emerged last summer.

She said thousands of people had chosen not to pay their TV licence in protest of people “who played fast and loose with taxpayer’s money”.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said it would be a conflict of interest for Mary Lou McDonald to be taoiseach
Cross-border projects Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said it would be a conflict of interest for Mary Lou McDonald to be taoiseach (Niall Carson/PA)

Ms McDonald said the Government had been “behind the curve on every twist and turn of this debacle”.

The Sinn Fein leader said Mr Varadkar was “guilty of gross indecision” and “an alarming but telling lack of curiosity”.

“You still talk about it as though you’re some detached inconsequential observer, you still can’t give straight concrete answers in respect of accountability, in respect of full disclosure of information.

“And it’s not, at this point, good enough for the director general of RTE or indeed for yourself as head of Government to continue to dilly dally and delay.”

The Sinn Fein leader asked Mr Varadkar what steps would be taken to ensure all details of severance packages for executives are published

She also called for the abolition of the TV licence and for RTE to be brought back under the remit of the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG).

Mr Varadkar said a “drip-feed of revelations” from RTE was seriously damaging the organisation.

However, he said RTE director-general Kevin Bakhurst had committed to making as much information about exit packages as possible available, pending further legal advice.

He also said media minister Catherine Martin has committed to implementing changes recommended in the upcoming reports from the Government’s two expert advisory committees on governance and culture within RTE.

Mr Varadkar said the Government “will take on board” any recommendations in relation to the C&AG.