Government must open files - A significant victory for democracy

Government must open files - A significant victory for democracy

In a 24-carat grade irony, the kind that makes scepticism around politics all but mandatory, just days after Leo Varadkar empathised with US President Donald Trump’s attacks on the media, a legal team representing the Taoiseach’s department was told by the High Court that their efforts at news management could not stand because they were illegal.

On Wednesday, Ms Justice Mary Faherty overturned a Government refusal to disclose Cabinet discussions on greenhouse-gas emissions between 2002 and 2016.

The court ordered that a request for access to these considerations must be reconsidered by a Department of the Taoiseach review.

It only adds to the deep irony and scepticism undermining our democracy that the party criticised by the court, the Department of the Taoiseach, is to arbitrate on its own behaviour even though the court found its discharge of its legal obligations on the matter unacceptable.

It is almost as if journalists were allowed rule on a libel action taken against them. Just imagine the Trumpian outcry, the capitalised midnight texts expressing faux outrage should that ever transpire.

Even if that context setting is relevant, it is very much secondary to the primary issue considered by the court. Ms Justice Faherty found that regulations implementing a 2003 EU Directive on Public Access to Environmental Information do not give Government discussions a “class exemption” from disclosure.

Though the ruling is not confined to Mr Varadkar’s time as Taoiseach, it again shows that EU legislation can be a real game-changer and can shine light into dark, hush-hush corners usually left cobwebbed and undisturbed by unwelcome public intrusion.

Another reason to welcome the ruling is that it serves that great public good — transparency — while forcing our Government to put meat on the bones of its much-vaunted but only-when-convenient commitment to openness is another reason to welcome the ruling.

That it took a group like Right To Know to force this decision shows too that the opposition grandstanding about “holding Government to account” is just the institutionalised parroting of cliches.

If the Government was held to account by the opposition, we might not have to depend on committed groups like Right To Know to take these important cases. It is as if the integrity of our democracy is more appreciated, more cherished, outside our parliament than inside it.

It is revealing, too, that the Government fought a stiff rearguard action so it and its predecessors’ considerations on emissions might not be published is revealing too.

Those discussions might throw some light on how a policy as dangerous as Food Harvest 2025 and the huge increase in the national herd it proposes came to be embraced; it might explain how, among other things, the power generation station at Moneypoint was able to continue to burn coal.

Most of all, it might explain what or who was behind the decisions that have won us the unenviable rating as one of the very worst countries in Europe for climate change preparation, decisions that may cost us €600m a year in fines.

Sadly, and frighteningly, that seems to be another area where our Government’s philosophies and Mr Trump’s align.

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