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Thursday, April 14, 2011

What Freedom of Information

Freedom of Information in Ireland

By Wayne Doyle

Ever since the foundation of the state in 1922 when Ireland gained its independence from England, there has been this secrecy DNA fibre which has been passed from generation to generation within Dail Eireann. The Irish state has never been in favour of the public viewing of documentation and monitoring the on goings within dial Eireann. During the 1922 civil war decisions were taken by the Irish government and emergency powers were passed in the Dail. These decisions included execution, censorship and internment. A serious level of secrecy was instilled over those horrifically dark days. The cabinet decisions and true account of the on goings in 1922 have never fully been released and some records which have been released are causing public uproar.

However, on the flip side of this gold shiny coin, Ireland is one of a small number of countries to maintain a democratic government consistently. How democratic of a society we actually were, and still are, remains to be seen. The freedom of information act was a major pillar within Irish society when it was enacted in 1922. For the first time in Ireland’s political history, the public could question senior representatives about expenditure and the effectiveness of their particular role. However in order to gain a sufficient understanding of the complex, multi-dimensional aspects and the sheer level of secrecy within Irish government before the bill was introduced, we will look at Ireland before the Freedom of information 1997 and highlight some key aspects which contributed to the delay of freedom of information in Ireland.

The first means of redress for those who wanted greater access to this information came in 1980, with the Ombudsman Act, which allowed individual citizens to have their grievances against government departments and local authorities investigated by impartial officials from the Office of the Ombudsman. While not directly concerned with Freedom of Information, this Act put the everyday practices of state bodies under public scrutiny. (Bull, Newel, 2003)

Until recently anybody who requested information, questioned the authorities, or their ability to do their job, would be seriously marginalised and frowned upon by the main pillars within the political sphere in Ireland. This involved the church of Ireland, the Gardaí and also the Irish government themselves. Representatives that we pay and are obliged to have the public’s best interests at heart, hiding, avoiding and manipulating the truth for well over five decades. It wasn’t until the 1980s that some progress was made as several pieces of legislation had managed to pass through the Dail without contamination. This legislation gave more access and more accountability to the public through state information. In the 1990s the country was shown a real need for accountability and transparency in relation to the on goings in Dail Eireann.

The Beef tribunal was set up in the 1990s to show that a partnership based on favouritism between Albert Reynolds and Larry Goodman whom was for a long time Ireland’s biggest exporter of beef; “nicknamed the beef baron” Mr Goodman had caused massive irregularities in the beef industry. Thee beef tribunal report in 1994 created difficulties within the newly formed government of Fianna Fail and labour as members of each of the party questioned each other’s credibility. The ministers refused to answer on the grounds of cabinet confidentiality and the matter was taken to the Supreme Court, which ruled that cabinet secrecy was a constitutional principle. Lohan, Hannigan, Conrad, Jackson, 1996, p8

Testament to the secrecy and mis-conduct within the Irish government was the comments made by PD leader Des O'Malley. “I've a lot to say but I'm saying none of it.”
With a new coalition in government the then Minister of State, Eithne Fitzgerald of the Labour Party, began investigating legislation that would lead to greater public accountability. She wrote of, “turning the culture of the Official Secrets Act on its head”. Mrs Fitzgerald believed there was a greater need for transparency within Irish politics. Public representatives should be held accountable for their actions, and their motives should be questioned by the public, because after all that is how a democratic society remains purified or in Irelands case becomes purified. For the First time with Irish history there was legislation that could protect but also hold individuals responsible for gross misconduct within Irish society. The Freedom of Information Act, 1997, gave the citizen three new rights – to see official records, correct personal information and be given the reasons for public decisions.

In 1997 after vast and much needed progress in terms of freedom of information in Ireland, the Freedom of information act took an unprecedented attack from the Minister for Finance Charlie McCreevy. In a premeditated showcase of power, the minister had handicapped the bill. Mr McCreevy stated that this was in a bid to cut costs in the finance section. Two restrictive steps were taken which would see applications for information half within the following two years of the bills implementation. One amendment was the fees to access non- personal information. Whilst the current charge for access to the documentation is only 15 euros, the researcher will also be charged a further 20.95 euros for every hour that is spent retrieving the work, even if the documentation you receive is not what you were originally looking for. Anybody looking to access material under the freedom of information act will pay anything in excess of 200 euros per application.

The second amendment made the freedom of information act in 2003 was that cabinet papers were to be held for a period of ten years. The original duration of holding cabinet papers was 5 years. Now that a new government has been elected what changes can we expect? Each party pitched its vision to us as voters through many keywords such as transparency, honesty, integrity and the ability to affect change.

This is exactly what the voter wants to hear, because Irish society is in great need of some honesty and integrity and above all leadership. Ireland needs somebody who can implement positive change and policies from the top down. Fine Gael have outlined the following

A New Freedom of Information Act

Fine Gael wants to reverse the restrictions that Fianna Fail has placed on Freedom of
Information in Ireland

It has two main goals:

• Short term: To provide a mechanism whereby the Citizen could access both personal
and non-personal information.
• Long-term: To fundamentally change the relationship between the State and the
Citizen as a result of the legislation.

Fine Gaels proposals seem to be very attainable, but also will have a positive effect on the general public as a whole. It seeks to gain the trust of the citizen again which is definitely as step in the right direction. It remains to be seen if the legislation is introduced. The coalition between the Labour party and Fine Gael means a middle ground may be found between the two political parties. The Labour party introduced the freedom of information act initially. As stated before this was a milestone in terms of Irish politics.

Labour Believes

• Public bodies must be held accountable to the public and that accountability requires openness
• Freedom of information has brought about more open government and better administration of public services.
• Fianna Fáil attacked the principle of Freedom of Information by introducing a prohibitive fee structure. The watering down of the Freedom of Information Act, along with the rise in number of quangos, served to build a barrier between government and the public.

• The Labour Party in government will foster a spirit of transparency, accountability and good governance. We will reinstate and extend the Freedom of Information Act and pursue an agenda of Open Data.

Labour also speaks of data and how it influences a great amount in our lives and the need for accountability and transparency on a daily basis. The need for the immediate release of truthful data which is being collected on a daily basis. Data is collected to improve the services and life of the public not to alienate them. Upon further research it must be noted the difficulty in obtaining information in relation to Fianna Fail and Sin Fein’s stance on the Freedom of information act.

Sinn Fein Believes

Sinn Fein’s Deputy Leader Caoimhghín ó Caolain stated “The current political system is dominated by special interests, corrupted by clientelism and dynastic politics, and resistant to change. The Oireachtas has consistently failed to exert sufficient scrutiny over the government and public bodies.

There are many steps we would take to restore confidence and trust in political leadership in Ireland”. Sinn Fein has highlighted that they are clear on the intrests of the public with a promise of dimantaling the ‘golden circles’ with have been created and maintained by particular political parties. Tranacparency and accouintability again came to the fore as the public finances have become very topical in this particular general election. In relation to the freedom of information act 1997, sinn fein have clearly outlined there intentions such as

• A reverse the dilution of the Freedom of Information Act brought in by Fianna Fáil and extend the operation of the FOI Act to include a wider range of bodies, including NAMA. Sinn Féin would introduce legislation to protect whistle-blowers and establish a
register of lobbyists.

• We will change the law to allow for the impeachment or removal of from the Dáil of anyTD involved in corruption, deliberate misuse of public money or fraud. We will make whatever legislative change required, going after and securing for the state the personal assets of those developers and bankers involved in NAMA and the bank bailouts.

Fianna Fail seem to have missed the importance of the Freedom of Formation Act as there is no clear reference (except for a measly five lines) made to reform or the implementation of new legislation anywhere in there manifesto which couldn’t be found on their website but could be found on RTE’s website. Fianna Fail’s manifesto seems to be a very poor effort in trying to reassure the Irish republic that they have an understanding and the ability to empathize what the people of Ireland want and need.

Fianna Fail spoke of significant strides which been made in recent years to open government to citizens which by any stretch of the imagination is laughable. Outlined in in the manifesto is pure contradiction in relation to reforms to the Freedom of information act. Fianna Fail declared:

• We support the automatic publication of all granted Freedom of Information requests online save in limited circumstances concerning personal data.

• We will formalise the requirement that all data gathered as a result of publicly-funded research be made publicly available in a data archive. In addition, the outcomes of publicly-funded research programmes must be made freely available save where there are specific commercial intellectual property issues.

The current legislation in and around Freedom of Information under fourteen years of a Fianna Fail government has not strived to implement any such reforms. Instead it has strived to hinder, hack and dismantle any of the above reforms. The freedom of Information Act is badly damaged and fractured in many ways, however with the removal of charges and correct implementation, the information provided could not only create jobs but contribute to the recovery of the economy. The Labour party and Fine Gael have clearly outlined how they will go about implementing and creating an effective freedom of information act, based on accountability, transparency and accessibility which is well overdue and a much needed change within Irish politics.

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