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…