Northern Ireland news

Stormont forced to publish DUP minister's paper after losing two-year FOI battle

DUP MP Gregory Campbell. Picture by Mal McCann
Brendan Hughes

STORMONT has been forced to publish a departmental paper by a former DUP minister after losing a two-year battle against freedom of information laws.

The Department for Communities (DfC) has been resisting requests to disclose a document presented by DUP MP Gregory Campbell to executive colleagues when he was sports minister.

Public watchdog the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) ordered DfC to release the nine-year-old paper, but the department challenged the decision in court.

However, the appeal was dismissed and DfC later released the document after deciding against pursuing it further.

The department spent almost £13,000 of taxpayers' cash contesting the matter – £8,212 on departmental solicitors' office costs and £4,658 on barrister costs.

It comes amid questions over Stormont transparency after the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service told the RHI inquiry some meetings were not minuted in order to avoid FOI disclosures.

David Sterling last month said the DUP and Sinn Féin were "sensitive to criticism" and it was "safer" not to have a record which might be released through FOI requests – but the parties have strongly rejected his claims.

In the 2009 executive paper, Mr Campbell outlined to the Stormont executive why he was abandoning plans to build a multi-sports stadium on the former Maze prison site.

The executive instead pledged major upgrades to three existing Belfast sports grounds. Windsor Park and Ravenhill redevelopments have been completed, while a proposed new Casement Park GAA stadium in west Belfast is still under consideration.

Tony Dignan of the Mooreland and Owenvarragh Residents Association had first requested the document in November 2015 and challenged DfC's refusals to disclose it.

He successfully challenged DfC's decision to treat his request as an FOI rather than under Environmental Information Regulations (EIR).

And in 2016 when DfC also refused to disclose the information under EIR, he made a further complaint to ICO.

Mr Dignan said the case shows Stormont is "overly protective" against providing information to the public.

"The lengths to which both the department and the Executive Office went in this particular case is indicative of an overly protective approach to making information publicly available," he said.

"It's fair enough that public officials should have a 'safe space' in dealing with matters of public policy that may be more or less sensitive. However, the public also has a right, enshrined in both the FOI and the EIR, to have access to information to better understand how and why decisions are made.

"My worry is that an overly protective attitude may lead officials to record information in ways that are less than transparent, or even not recording information at all."

The case was heard at the Royal Courts of Justice in Belfast last October and a decision released last month.

Arguing against publication, DfC had said ministers should have a "safe space" to reach decisions, disclosure would inhibit free and frank discussions, and would distract public debate away from "current substantive issues".

In its decision notice, ICO said the department's arguments were "largely generic and do not consider in any detail the content of the actual requested information".

It noted how executive ministers had not been asked to comment or discuss the paper, and much of the information had already been placed in the public domain by the minister himself through a public statement.

At the tribunal hearing, ICO said DfC did not specify what 'current substantive issues' would suffer from disclosure or how the public would be 'distracted', describing this argument as "bizarre".

When asked of the effect of the release of the disputed document, Neill Jackson from the Executive Office told the tribunal: "I think it would make them more reluctant to express their opinion."

However, the tribunal said he failed to explain this assertion, and no evidence was provided of how its release would undermine protected safe space.

Denise Stockman, director of DfC's regional stadia programme, told the tribunal she felt the old Maze project would reignite controversy and affect the Casement Park plans.

However, the tribunal found there was no demonstrable evidence of harm to the GAA stadium project.

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