You’ve just had one of your rights erased

THE final nail has been driven into the Freedom of Information Act.

While it is unfortunate that the President did not refer the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill to the Council of State for examination, her decision to sign the Bill within 24 hours of the early signing motion being presented to Seanad Éireann gives a neat piece of symmetry to this sorry saga.

It is worth reflecting on what happened.

Rumours that plans were afoot to bastardise the Bill emerged in early February. The NUJ immediately sought and were refused meetings with the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Minister of State at the Department of Finance.

In time it emerged that a secret review was carried out by a group of secretaries general who did not consult with the Information Commissioner (or anyone else) because they had not been told to do so by the Government.

The cabinet duly met, accepted the report of the top civil servants and added in other restrictions for good measure. It was decided not to publish the Bill mid-week but to wait until Friday, February 28.

On Tuesday, March 4, Seanad Éireann was asked to consider the Bill in a bizarre debate during the course of which it emerged that some rural senators had not even received copies of the legislation.

By March 13 the Oireachtas committee on Finance and the Public Service had agreed to hear submissions. The advice of the Information Commissioner that sections of the Bill were inoperable was duly noted and ignored. Other submissions were similarly dismissed.

The NUJ was the first body to highlight the dangers inherent in the amendment relating to personal information. We welcome the change of heart by the Minister for Finance following the powerful presentation by Colm O’Gorman to the Oireachtas committee.

What that u-turn proved was that the entire Bill was ill-considered. The Government pressed on nevertheless, with the Taoiseach insisting that the hours spent on the debate during March was in some way compensation for the complete absence of public consultation on a Bill designed to take away rights conferred on citizens by the Oireachtas only five years ago.

The Taoiseach and Tánaiste have yet to explain how they reconcile the Government’s approach with the commitments to consultation contained in the new Social Partnership Agreement, Sustaining Progress. ,

The Bill was signed into law on Friday as those gatekeepers of democracy, the Progressive Democrats, met to celebrate their achievements in government. As they surveyed the ruins of an Act they once supported with such enthusiasm I hope they were proud of their work.

Seamus Dooley,

Irish Secretary,

National Union of Journalists,

Liberty Hall,

Dublin 1.

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