OFMDFM: “It is becoming increasingly obvious this trust is in danger of being eroded…”

Yesterday’s Irish News carried an interesting report of the most recent proceedings of the Northern Ireland Assembly Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

It seems that the NI First Minister, the DUP’s Peter Robinson, and the then-acting deputy First Minister, Sinn Féin’s John O’Dowd, are/were not happy.  And they’ve written to the Assembly Speaker, William Hay, to tell him so.

First, some background.

Back in July 2010, OFMDFM published their “motherhood and apple pie” proposals for the long-awaited Programme for Cohesion, Sharing and Integration.  There was to be a public consultation, ending on 29 October 2010.

The intial reaction, from a range of organisations and individuals, was less than complementary.

In May this year, having been safely returned to office, the NI deputy First Minister, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, told the Assembly Committee

We carried out an extensive consultation exercise on the programme for cohesion, sharing and integration last year. The responses have been analysed independently and a report provided. The five main political parties have agreed to appoint representatives to a working group that will seek consensus on issues that will enable the publication of a cohesion, sharing and integration strategy. That group will consider the consultation responses, and all Departments will be asked for their input. All consultation responses will be shared with the working group as well as the Committee. A road map that sets out the steps and timetable for the strategy and a robust action plan will be brought forward. It is anticipated that the strategy and action plan will be ready for the autumn and December respectively.

But by September, that “working group” had failed to meet.  And there was no sign of the consultation responses or the report.

However, the Irish News reported on 19 October that the responses revealed in the report had “castigated their plans to tackle sectarianism.” 

The report itself was the subject of a meeting of the Assembly’s OFMDFM Committee meeting on the same day.  As the Belfast Telegraph reported

Joanne Wallace, of Wallace Consulting, which conducted the analysis, said there had been a feeling in the consultation that it did not matter what people were going to say, the strategy was already written.

Chairman of the committee, Tom Elliott, suggested the responses overall were “very damning”, and “a lot more negative than positive” and asked whether the CSI document almost needs re-written.

“I think it would need significant surgery,” Ms Wallace answered.

But a clarion call for strong leadership from Stormont in dealing with community relations and sectarianism was also contained in the responses from business organisations, voluntary groups, churches, educationalists and |others.

Ms Wallace said there was a clear demand for ‘good relations’ to permeate all decisions made across Government and down to district council level.

Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle said members should be questioning the value for money of the first ministers’ office — where the responses, and analysis, have sat for 10 months — and asked why it had taken so long for them to reach the committee.  [added emphasis]

Senior first ministers’ office official Linsey Farrell said a political hiatus had kicked in ahead of the Assembly election but now the new all-party group was getting the work “up and running”.

Since then the responses to the public consultation, the analysis of those responses by Wallace Consulting, and, interestingly, the response from OFMDFM, have all appeared on the CSI Consultation webpage webpage. 

They all appear to have been added on 25 October.  Not that anyone was informed…

The Wallace Consulting Consultation Analysis Report [pdf file] is dated “January 2011”.  The OFMDFM response [pdf file] is dated 5 July 2011 [5/7/11].

And so to yesterday’s Irish News report.  At the meeting of the Assembly Committee for OFMDFM the discussion was of a letter from the NI First and deputy First Ministers to the Speaker, William Hay, written on 19 October, the same day the Irish News revealed the contents of that CSI Consultation analysis report – and the same day the Committee met to be briefed on the report.  From yesterday’s Irish News

In the letter the two ministers said they were concerned about the “continued leaking of classified documents into the public domain and particularly to representatives of the media”.

It pointed to The Irish News story as “the most recent example” of a leak and warned that future leaks could jeopardise the “climate of trust” between assembly committees and the department.

“It is becoming increasingly obvious this trust is in danger of being eroded through the actions of individuals who, for whatever motives, are pursuing a selfish and negative agenda and are certainly not assisting committees in fulfilling their statutory duty of advising and assisting ministers in the development of their policy,” the letter said. [added emphasis]

“It would be our concern that this important relationship which is central to the integrity of the political institutions here may break down to such an extent that it will be difficult to repair for some time.”

The letter asked the speaker to “outline what steps the assembly authorities have taken or propose to take” and warned the “situation cannot continue”.

In his response, Mr Hay rebutted the claims and said that there were “robust systems in place to protect classified or sensitive documents and these systems work”. [added emphasis]

I’m all in favour of proper procedures being followed, but the complaints by OFMDFM in this case are somewhat undermined by the fact that they’ve sat on this report for 10 months, until well after the elections had concluded.  There’s also the fact that the 19 October Committee meeting, when MLAs were first briefed on and discussed the analysis of the responses, was in public – as the Belfast Telegraph report evidences.