What Tony told Ian and Gerry and what neither must know…

Worth a brief mention is the fact that an otherwise unsuccessful Freedom of Information request by Jim Allister has established the existence of letters which were withheld because they “would prejudice to the effective conduct of the NI Executive”. The MEP’s fuller statement is mostly speculative, yet raises a number of intriguing questions. Not least about unmatching expectations from both main parties in government about what can be settled and when…From Jim Allister

“In pursuit of my FOI requests with the NIO, arising from the St Andrews negotiations, I had asked for all documentation which issued to Sinn Fein and the DUP at or following the St Andrews Conference. Whereas some documents have been furnished to me I am concerned that an unspecified number of communications have been withheld on the politically significant grounds that their disclosure would cause “prejudice to the effective conduct of the Northern Ireland Executive”.

It has been specified to me by the NIO that the withheld information is contained in letters between Ministers and the leaders of Sinn Fein and the DUP, which were issued “at or following the St Andrews summit”.

So, there are secret letters which passed from Ministers to the Sinn Fein and DUP leaders which have not been made public and the reason is that their publication might cause “prejudice to the effective conduct of the NI Executive”. This causes me to believe that there may be letters unique and specific to the DUP and Sinn Fein, raising the public interest question of whether what has been said to each party by HMG is compatible or consistent. Might this be the “threat” to the effective conduct of the Executive, namely that if each knew what the other had been told or promised, it could undermine the working of the Executive? For example, if Sinn Fein had secret promises on an amnesty, or dismantling operations against criminality in South Armagh, or on the Irish Language, it could indeed destabilise the Executive.

It seems to me that the public interest of straightforward dealing and open government has been swamped by political considerations. Surely, the public are rightly entitled to know what HMG said or promised to each of the key parties in these secret letters which flowed at or from St Andrews.

I know, from what the NIO has written to me, that some of the documentation pertains to “issues that are still subject to discussion with the NI parties”. Thus I expect policing and justice is included, but has HMG told the two parties the same thing or are they telling each what they want to hear. If they are, then that certainly could destabilise Stormont.

Not being satisfied that the public interest is being served by the withholding of this documentation I have lodged a formal request for a review and, ultimately, I will take this matter to the Information Commissioner.”

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty