Northern Ireland news

Arlene Foster's Brexit adviser 'blocked Stormont release of FOIs'

Former DUP special adviser Andrew Crawford at the RHI inquiry
Brendan Hughes

ARLENE Foster's RHI scandal-hit special adviser blocked Stormont civil servants from releasing several Freedom of Information (FOI) responses.

The Irish News in November revealed Andrew Crawford did not approve for release an FOI response that exposed a DUP minister caught up in a bonfire controversy.

It has since emerged more FOIs were not published under Mr Crawford's watch as a special adviser (Spad) in the agriculture department.

FOI legislation requires public bodies to respond to information requests promptly and within 20 working days.

But some requests to the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) remained unpublished for up to nine months.

They were finally released when Daera officials carried out a review of unpublished FOIs after the Stormont executive collapsed in the wake of the RHI scandal.

A backlog of 32 FOIs was uncovered. Around seven would have been due for release while Mr Crawford was still a Daera Spad.

Daera had operated a policy whereby FOI responses needed approval from the minster's Spad before they could be released.

Mr Crawford became a Spad in 2016 to Daera minister Michelle McIlveen. He currently advises the DUP on Brexit.

The backlog emerged after The Irish News asked Daera why it took seven months to respond to an FOI request about ex-DUP minister Paul Givan lighting a bonfire.

The FOI uncovered emails in which a senior Stormont environmental official said Mr Givan's actions in Co Tyrone in July 2016 were considered "an offence".

Environment Agency staff investigated and Mr Givan was given "advice" as part of a "proportional response".

Asked about the delay, Daera confirmed its procedure at the time involved "passing all draft responses to the departmental private office and responses being held until the minister's special adviser had noted the contents".

"There is no record of why your FOI request was not cleared for issue at that time," a Daera official added.

A subsequent review uncovered 32 unreleased FOIs, according to a further information request by The Irish News.

Based on the dates requests were made, around seven would have been due for release while Mr Crawford was Daera's special adviser.

Among them was a request for a copy of the minister's first day briefing, and information on Daera's "single-language policy", which related to a row over a Daera boat's name being changed from Irish to English.

Daera said it continued to deal with FOIs "in line with the policy at that time" in the weeks after Stormont's collapse was triggered, until the review was carried out in February 2017.

All 32 FOIs were then released the following month.

Mr Crawford was Mrs Foster's Spad when she launched the RHI scheme in 2012 as enterprise minister.

He resigned in January 2017 after a senior civil servant alleged he exerted influence over the delays in curbing the RHI scheme's overgenerous tariffs. He denies wrongdoing.

Alliance deputy leader and ex-Stormont minister Stephen Farry warned against "political vetting" of FOIs, while Green Party leader Clare Bailey called for a strengthening of the FOI Act.

The DUP did not respond to requests for a comment.

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