UUP leader Mike Nesbitt’s charge that a briefing paper on the negative implications of Brexit apparently withheld from the former multiparty Executive by the FM and dFM in May 2015 may have been in breach of the ministerial code, is a neat move by a party now in formal opposition. It is also a small coup by The Detail which has just published the document after an FoI request.
Was it a breach of the ministerial code as Nesbitt claims? One section of the code lists the seven ( Nolan) principles of public life one of which states :
Openness Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions that they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands.
In Section 2:
The Executive Committee will provide a forum for:-
(iv) recommending a common position where necessary..
(vi) discussion of and agreement upon significant or controversial matters that are clearly outside the scope of the agreed programme referred to in paragraph 20 of Strand One of the Agreement;
The Executive Committee will provide a forum for the discussion of, and agreement on, issues which cut across the responsibilities of two or more Ministers, for prioritising executive and legislative proposals and for recommending a common position where necessary (e.g. in dealing with external relationships)
and – back to the Code – (vii) discussion of and agreement upon significant or controversial matters that the First Minister and deputy First Minister acting jointly have determined to be matters that should be considered by the Executive Committee
The cross cutting clause would seem to apply to the briefing document . But how much discretion did viii give Peter Robinson (now Arlene Foster) and Martin McGuinness? It was after all written by a Unit of what was then OFMDFM.
The Fresh Start agreement of November last year makes the point about the conduct of Assembly business.
To promote greater efficiency in the conduct and discharge of Executive business, the following practice shall be observed in line with the Northern Ireland Act 1998: a.Agenda circulated one day in advance of an Executive meeting; b.Inclusion of papers as substantive agenda items no later than the third meeting
But this section really deals with curtailing the alleged practice of bouncing decisions on the Executive, not the disclosure of important papers.
The questions arise: why bother to withhold the briefing paper when the DUP and SF had yet to settle on lines to take on the referendum and might have benefited from an airing? (OK naive question. The politburos had yet to decide). More to the point, what line to take are they jointly working on now, following their joint letter to Theresa May ( which is clearly based on the briefing document), as they wait for the UK government to consult them ( they hope) ?
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London