FOI revision a step in the right direction

AS the McNulty farce sadly reminded us this week our relationship with accountability or transparency could hardly be described as natural or embracing.

Where we should have a culture of confident, empowering openness we have one of evasion and prevarication, one of default stonewalling and concealment in our public affairs. This borderline dishonesty has not served us at all well.

Just last July a review of the Department of Justice uncovered a “closed, secretive” culture, just one of several damming conclusions about how one of the most powerful arms of Government conducted business. Unfortunately — and probably realistically — the general perception is that any review of any Government department – and most semi states – might easily reach similar conclusions.

Earlier this week Conor Brady, a founding commissioner of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, described, almost in despair, how the Commission’s work was blocked by a police force that refused to accept that it could be held to account by an arm of Government. That attitude, we are assured, has changed but it is probably too early to accept that it has; something far more concrete than a declaration is required.

One of the tools that can be used to test the extent of that change, albeit in a very limited way, will be the renewed Freedom of Information Act. For the first time the gardaí fall under the remit of the Act. But only financial, procurement and human resource records will be accessible through FOI. By international standards, and even when compared to legislation controlling the PSNI north of the border, this falls a long way short of what is required.

After all only the force’s housekeeping can be reviewed but policing, by far the greatest source of controversy, remains strictly off limits.

It is not hard to argue that this damages the gardaí at least as much as it protects them. Had the force been obliged to answer questions on penalty points and how that system was abused by officers it is just possible that the damaging, credibility-destroying scandal that followed might have been resolved before the former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan and former Justice Minister Alan Shatter lost their jobs. The very fact that garda behaviour might be so scrutinised might also dissuade those officers who might misbehave.

The revised Act will also cover NAMA and the NTMA but in terribly limited ways. Amazingly some public bodies — the Commissioner for Irish Lights, The North/South Language Body, the Food Safety Promotion Board and the Private Security Agency as well as semi-States such as the National Lottery, EirGrid, the VHI and Dublin Bus —need not concern themselves with the prospect of an FOI intrusion as they beyond the Act’s reach.

Despite these limitations the revised Act is very positive development in the reform agenda, one that should be recognised as such. It should not however be regarded as a conclusion but rather a stepping stone towards standards of accountability far closer to international norms.


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