O’Donoghue resigns - Information Act must be strengthened

WITHOUT the Freedom of Information Act John O’Donoghue would still be Ceann Comhairle.

Without the Freedom of Information Act we would never have known that so many meetings of international parliamentarians coincided with race meetings at Longchamp, Chantilly or Sandown.

Without the Freedom of Information Act most of us would never have know what it costs to be ferried in a chauffeur-driven limousine between terminals at Heathrow Airport.

Without the Freedom of Information Act someone in the offices of the man described on his own website as being “widely regarded as the best opposition spokesperson on justice in the history of the state” might even now be making arrangements to attend “a meeting of parliamentarians” to coincide with next month’s Breeders’ Cup in Santa Anita, Los Angeles.

Is it any wonder so that it took so long to have the initial Freedom of Information Act put in place? Is it any wonder so that politicians have, at an arm’s length, done so much to limit it, so much to put the self-serving culture of secrecy ahead of the transparency and honesty so central to an active, functioning democracy?

FOI legislation was enacted just over a decade ago but in 2003 a “review” was carried out.

The review was conducted by four Government secretaries general under the chairmanship of the secretary general to the Government and, remarkably, they conducted their business behind closed doors. They did not seek the views of the public or any of the parties with a particular interest in the act. The review group members “drew upon their own experiences and experiences of others of which they were aware, including that of their respective ministers” before making recommendations to limit the scope of the legislation.

These unelected officials rather than our parliamentarians have shaped today’s Freedom of Information Act.

Our Freedom of Information Act should be restored to its original vigour because it is, after all, no more than one of the ways we can keep our Government honest.

This weekend the Greens will engage in an admirably democratic exercise, one that may have profound implications for the future of this coalition. One of the central themes of the weekend’s debate will be reform of Government. How admirable and reassuring it would be if the Greens were to insist, as part of their renegotiation of the programme for government, that the Freedom of Information Act be strengthened rather than undermined.

They might support Finance Minister Brian Lenihan’s proposal to end the quaint but unacceptable Oireachtas practice of paying expenses without a relevant receipt.

It was, after all, the discovery that members of the House of Commons were claiming for everything from maternity islands for ducks, to digging up tennis courts, from the restoration of historic houses to the payment of mortgages on phantom homes that ended the careers of those who so energetically and shamelessly abused the British system.

Similar transparency might have a similar impact here but as Mario Puzo’s most infamous character said: “Power is taken, it is not given.” And information is, after all, power.

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