FOR more than 50 years the Irish public had no right to see official documents. The civil servants were effectively our masters — not public servants.
During the media preview of the State papers that were released last year, I was surprised to find that one file began with a letter that I wrote to Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave for access to some material relating to research for my first book. His staff were unable to find the material, but he did reply with other relative information.
Shortly afterwards, the Cosgrave government opened up the State papers for the first time and now we have the annual release under a 30-year rule.
The Freedom of Information Act (FoI) was passed in 1997, and Information
Commissioner Emily O’Reilly reviewed the first 10 years of that legislation this week. She dutifully paid non-partisan credit to people like Senator Brendan Ryan and Dick Roche for trying to introduce private members’ bills before Eithne Fitzgerald managed to get the legislation through as minister of state.
In the past 10 years there have been 130,000 FoI requests and around 70% of those have been granted either in full or in part. But Ms O’Reilly notes there has been a dramatic fall-off in the number of requests since the act was amended five years ago, even though it now covers more the eight times as many public bodies.
She blames the decline on the introduction of charges for FoI requests. A high-level review group had been set up to evaluate the first five years of the legislation, but the subsequent amendments went far beyond its recommendations.
Ms O’Reilly notes that a mandatory class exemption was created for records which concern security, defence or international relations of the State, or matters relating to Northern Ireland. Those bodies do not have to identify any specific harm that might be caused by the release of any particular record.
“If, some Sunday evening this July, Minister Martin emails Irish embassies around the world with the good news that Cork has beaten Kerry in the Munster championship, that will be a protected communication!” Ms O’Reilly declared on Thursday.
Of course, her point was that even the most absurd messages would be protected. As a Kerryman, I like her concept of the absurd. It reminded me of some of my own difficulties getting access to information over the years. Back in mid-1970s the army chief-of-staff gave me permission see some army files relating to the internment of Allied and Axis servicemen in the Curragh during the Second World War. When I got there, however, he had been called away, so I met his adjutant. He called in the archivist, Captan Peter Young, and ordered him to show me the files, but not to let me read them. He said I would need the permission of the minister for defence to read them. Captain Young showed me some files, and if I asked any questions about them he would read out the answer, but I did go prepared for that.
The chief-of-staff later told me he would recommend that the minister authorise access, and he did not anticipate any difficulty. Then the government changed and the new minister for defence, the late Brian Lenihan, rejected the request.
After a further change of governments I approached the new minister, Paddy Cooney, who burst out laughing as he authorised access. “Of course,” he said, “you have already seen the files.”
Peter Barry subsequently authorised access to some files at the Department of Foreign Affairs, but that department took ages vetting the material. An official explained there were so many files that the delay was in checking them.
There was another change of government in 1987 and I was informed that the new Minister for Foreign Affairs, the same Brian Lenihan, had essentially withdrawn permission to see most of the files.
The Department of Foreign Affairs was notorious for its secrecy, so it did not occur to me he was covering up a family skeleton. Then one day I came across a reference to a Joe Lenihan, who was dropped into this country as a Nazi spy in 1941.
It had long been maintained that all the Germans spies who came here during the war were captured. In his book, Spies in Ireland, Enno Stephan identified all the spies who were caught in this country, but there was no mention of any Lenihan.
I called Peter Young, who was then a commandant in charge of the army archives and is now deceased. He said he had heard of Lenihan and I should look into it. After some digging I learned that Joe Lenihan was Brian Lenihan’s uncle.
When I told Commandant Young, he said: “Right, you found that out yourself. Come up and I’ll show you the files.”
He told me then that Brian Lenihan had told him not to show anybody the file on his uncle unless the person knew who Joe Lenihan was and asked specifically for it.
The file indicated that the Luftwaffe dropped Lenihan over Summerhill, Co Meath, on July 18, 1941. In the next four days he visited members of his family and then, with gardaí in hot pursuit, he slipped over the border into Northern Ireland and offered his services to the British as a double agent. I was given the runaround for more than a decade because the late Brian Lenihan was trying to stop the truth coming out. What was he afraid of — that people would blame him because his uncle came here as a German spy, or because he actually became a British spy? Nobody is responsible for the conduct of earlier generations.
I certainly agree with the information commissioner that providing any government body or organisation with a blanket right to withhold information is absurd.
“It is undoubtedly true that some media use of FoI has been at the less than edifying end of the scale,” she admitted. “Establishing the make-up costs of then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern is simply titillating and does FoI no good at all.”
BERTIE Ahern was one of the highest paid politicians in the world and if we have to pay thousands for his make-up, we should have the right to know it. The make-up was literally part of a cover-up! I wonder if any of the women ministers ever charged for their make-up?
Was Bertie Ahern able to claim for shaving cream and razors? If we are paying for make-up for him, Brian Cowen or anyone else, we should know about it.
People should have the right to know what they are paying for.
Ms O’Reilly thinks the 2003 amendments to the FoI “were ill-conceived” and she questions why the Garda Síochána should have a blanket exemption. When this exemption was being debated in the Dáil in 1997, Jim McDaid noted that the exclusion of the gardaí “facilitated mismanagement and corruption”.
Since then, she added, “we have heard much from the Morris Tribunal to suggest that Dr McDaid was not exaggerating”.
The cost to the State of the FoI requests is small in comparison with what is being squandered by agencies on spin doctors.
Ms O’Reilly notes, for instance, that the HSE will pay in the region of 3.3 million this year to the National Communications Unit which had nothing to do with health promotion or health awareness campaigns. It is basically being squandered on covering up the HSE’s monumental incompetence.
We’re being screwed.
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