Stormont not so keen on transparency or the FOI Act…

I think the significance of this News Letter story is the Stormont administration’s attitude to transparency and openness, especially, but not solely, with regard to ‘awkward questions’ from the public. The information being sought was the details of Sinn Fein appointed ministerial drivers. But, for me, this is core of the issue:

DFP claimed in a submission to the Information Commissioner that “it was important that cohesion was maintained in the enforced five-party coalition”.

It also argued that “given the political make-up of Northern Ireland, that there was a greater political argument to be made for maintaining cohesion within the Northern Ireland Executive where there is an enforced coalition of five political parties”.

The department went on to argue that “disclosure of the information could prevent the maturing of the Executive in Northern Ireland”. In the same submission the department argued that the sums involved were so small that they “diminished the public interest in favour of disclosure”.

However, there is no provision in the Freedom of Information Act (2000) for the Stormont Executive to receive additional exemptions from the law because of its unique make-up.

That would be the ‘fragile flower defence’ which has been availed of several times before… Indeed, DFP may have been anticipating that long promised extension of the Act

“….Ministry of Justice officials confirmed that while the reduced time-lock on records will be extended to other exempted areas such as court documents, an exception will be made for some cabinet documents concerning Northern Ireland.

The presumption will be to release all records but any document that can be shown to contain “information prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs in Northern Ireland or to the work of the Executive Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly” will be held back for 10 years longer. [added emphasis]

A Ministry of Justice official said: “It will have to be shown that the public interest in withholding it outweighs the public interest in disclosing it.”

As Nevin has pointed out in an email to Slugger there’s also an interesting claim at the end of the News Letter article:

“And last month it emerged that the Executive wrote to Westminster requesting that it be allowed to charge for Freedom of Information requests, something which in the Republic of Ireland has largely neutered the legislation.

At the time of going to press the department had not responded to a request for comment.”

Hmmmm…

  • cynic2

    Why should we be permitted to ask impertinent questions of our betters?

    But then again, are lease minders licensed? And who issued the licence?

  • Mick Fealty

    In my own view I think there are longer term difficulties being stored up here… Accountability can help keep goverment close to work of psrliamentarians…

  • cynic2

    I totally agree

    Even more important, sunlight is one of the greatest public disinfectants – and we certainly need some at Stormont and in our Councils

  • http://www.ardrighbooks.com SeaanUiNeill

    “Fiat justitia ruat caelum” — if only, alas!

    How many of us have written to a minister seeking clarification on some significant issue, only to receive a “go away and stop bothering me” reply.

  • seamus60

    Just try getting a breakdown of your rates bill. Now theres abuse of accountability and transparency on a grand scale. Regardless of all pre-election promises.

  • http://nalil.blogspot.com Nevin

    Accountability requires a paper trail and such a trail needs information-laden minutes. I’ve reported here on Slugger about a contraction of minutes from, say, eight pages to two and therefore a dramatic reduction in information content; I’ve also reported an absence of minutes and therefore a possible critical break in the information trail.

    The Máirtín Ó Muilleoir saga is a good illustration of these issues. His last-minute appointment as an additional NIW NED and belfastjj’s FoI requests led on to revelations about funding from Belfast Harbour Commissioners for one of his projects, a project with a strong SF flavour. BHC had no hesitation in providing a detailed and illuminating response to my FoI request.

    A bit more digging unearthed a meeting involving Minister Conor Murphy, his special adviser, some senior DRD officials and the then NIW CEO, Laurence Mackenzie. DRD claimed it had no minutes of this ‘informal’ meeting but Laurence referred to it in NIW ET minutes. These minutes were online but were subsequently discontinued when the CEO found out. When I raised the issue the absent minutes were put online but future ET minutes were discontinued and heavily abbreviated NIW Board minutes were published instead.

    I’ve just had a look at the NIW website. The Executive Team morphed into a slimmed down in more ways than one Executive Committee and its final minutes were published on 17 September 2010; the monthly Board minutes have not been published since 22 February 2012 – those for March are missing and those for April should be available within a few days.

    Perhaps the Information and Audit Commissioners need to be pro-active to ensure that there’s an adequate information and audit trail.

  • http://nalil.blogspot.com Nevin

    “sunlight is one of the greatest public disinfectants”

    cynic2, you also need a torch when you go to those places in regional and national governance where the sun don’t shine.

    This little ray of sunshine wonders if public procurement is fit for purpose, if public officials have the necessary expertise to evaluate, award and supervise projects. Are our Stormont committees and the NI Audit Office equally inept?

    When it comes to public realm projects we’ve got falling apart stone tables in Ballycastle where the tables have not been constructed according to the design, peeling information panels in Ballycastle and Coolranny and a disintegrating promenade in Portrush. All of these faults have come to light within months of being officially signed off. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if stone masons and marine construction engineers played no part in these projects.

  • http://nalil.blogspot.com Nevin

    “only to receive a “go away and stop bothering me” reply.”

    Publish said reply, Seann – the oxygen of publicity can have wondrous effects!

    You could also channel your request through an elected representative from the same party as the Minister. Here’s a response from the DRD minister which sounds very positive. Until you look at the date – 15 August 2011 – and find that the remedies have not yet been carried out!

  • http://nalil.blogspot.com Nevin

    “‘fragile flower defence’”

    This FFD refers to the OFMDFM and to the Executive but, in the case of the ‘jobs for the boys’, protection might be required for the Provisional Republican Movement too – in order to prevent a further drift to the so-called dissenters. The DFP defence may be a smokescreen.

    The behaviour of the OFMDFM as a two-party dictatorship appears, so far, not to be much of a threat to the principle that ‘cohesion was maintained in the enforced five-party coalition’.

  • http://nalil.blogspot.com Nevin

    It’s extraordinary what the torch can reveal – when MLAs turn it on: Harbourgate – cover-up and fraud?

  • seamus60

    Taking into account that a certain 2 partys have fallen way short in putting people forward to represent them on TV programmes doesn`t paint a pretty picture either.