Freedom of information is the last thing these manipulators want

NOBODY should be surprised that the Government is contemplating a revision of the Freedom of Information Act because information obtained under the Act has already exposed this Government as lying and manipulative.

Since an informed electorate is an indispensable requirement of democracy, any attempt to impede the flow of information to the electorate should be viewed as an attack on the republic itself.

Only this week we had an example of the danger of secrecy at the Bloody Sunday inquiry, when one of the British soldiers admitted that he signed a false statement claiming not only that a nail bomb had been thrown at them but also that they had come under fire before they began shooting on that fateful day in January 1972.

At the time, of course, the soldiers would have been confident that the truth would not come out during their lifetime, if they lied to justify their behaviour.

After all, their government covered up the lies about what happened at Croke Park on the first Bloody Sunday in November 1920. The soldiers at that time also claimed that they were shot at, but few believed them. The records of that outrage are not due to be opened until 2020. The culprits got away with murder, and hence it happened again, and again.

That was the kind of government from which we were supposedly fighting to break away. Yet we continued to incorporate the culture of civil service secrecy, thereby protecting the incompetent, and even the corrupt. Such secrecy was one of the more despicable features of the British system.

In recent years we learned that as early as the 1940s our own government was warned about the clerical paedophile abuse in the industrial schools, but the abusers were able to cover up their vile deeds because the civil servants lacked the courage to act and the government did not have the guts to take on the hierarchy to which it had abrogated much of its authority in a treacherous betrayal of the republic.

Now the people are being asked to pay damages for the child abuse, along with the cost of all the shenanigans being investigated by the various other tribunals.

During the last general election campaign the Minister for Finance, Charlie McCreevy, denied that the Government was either aware of impending cost overruns, or was planning to cut back on spending. He stated baldly in a letter to the Fine Gael leader on May 13, 2002, that there were "no significant overruns projected and no cutbacks whatsoever are being planned secretly or otherwise".

Using the Freedom of Information Act Carl O'Brien of the Irish Examiner managed to procure copies of letters that demonstrated the minister was not telling the truth. On February 26, 2002, the Department of Finance instructed other departments to cut 13m from their budgets so that money could be diverted into initiatives of the Departments of Health and Justice for announcements to be made during the general election campaign.

Then, on April 17, the Department sent out a further letter ordering that an extra 19m should be pared from the budgets of various departments to fund the expansion of the primary school building programme announced during the election campaign.

Thus the electorate was deceived about the expenditure of 32m of their own money, just to facilitate a series of election announcements. This was also an affront to the Oireachtas, which had approved of the legislation giving effect to the budget proposals. As such it was a perversion of democracy.

The Government was actually misappropriating the people's money. Even if no politician put it in his own pocket, they spent it to help their own political careers and hurt their opponents.

The people have a right to know what politicians are doing with their money, and the politicians have a duty to inform them. That is the main point in the estimates and the budget each year.

What is the point in having the Oireachtas pass money matters, if the Government can turn around and ignore what has been approved? Most important, the people have a right to know that they were not being misled, and there should be no law to facilitate the withholding of legitimate information from the people.

The kind of changes being mooted to the Freedom of Information Act would have prevented the exposure of the current Government's creative spending initiatives until after the next general election.

We have seen what happened to Greencore and Eircom in this country and we have been warned from abroad of creative accounting practices at Enron and World Com, so people should appreciate the dangers, especially when it comes to money matters.

During the year we learned about the extravagant spending of members of the Government. We also got an insight into the way that politicians ran up exorbitant expenses during the year, and we learned how Charlie McCreevy pressed ahead with the SSIA scheme against the advice of his officials.

We pay civil servants to advise and facilitate politicians, and we pay politicians to make decisions.

So there was nothing improper about Charlie McCreevy ignoring the advice he was given, but we have a right to know, so that we can determine who deserves the credit, if it works, and the blame, if it doesn't. What we need is more information and more openness, but government departments have already begun charging for documents in what amounts to our first tax on information. Worse, the Government and civil service have been dragging their feet on releasing material.

More documents are being refused, forcing lengthy appeals that may take months or even years.

In July Carl O'Brien broke a story about the number of mentally handicapped people in our prisons. He had applied for access to a report completed more than two years earlier, but the Department of Justice just sat on the information that 28.8% of Irish prisoners had an IQ of under 70. Whether one categorises those people as retarded, mentally handicapped, intellectually challenged, or some other politically correct euphemism, it all amounts to the same thing.

The number of such people in our jails is grossly out of balance with our population, in comparison with other countries. Only 4% of British prisoners have an IQ of under 70, while the figure in both the USA and Canada is more than double at 9%. Yet we have more than three times the North American figure.

"I was unaware of the existence of any such report until I heard 'It Says in the Papers' this morning," Michael McDowell, the Minister for Justice, admitted. He expressed amazement that such a high proportion of Irish prisoners have an 'intellectual disability' in comparison with the United States.

"I would be very surprised," he said, "if the Irish justice system is less sensitive to this issue than, say, the American system, about which so many complaints are made by people in America."

The report has still not been published. The taxpayer paid £18,000 for it, yet the politicians and civil servants have now sat on it for three years and apparently done nothing about a disgraceful situation.

Before coming to power the current coalition parties ridiculed the Freedom of Information Act as minimalist, but now they are talking about a further u-turn. It is another squalid example of their deceit as well as their contempt for the electorate.

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