Northern Ireland news

DUP adviser told Stormont officials not to answer Irish News queries on FOI role

Ex-DUP special adviser Andrew Crawford at the RHI inquiry
Brendan Hughes

ARLENE Foster's Brexit adviser told Stormont press officers not to respond to Irish News queries about his role in vetting Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, internal emails show.

It emerges after The Irish News revealed Andrew Crawford blocked officials from releasing several FOI responses – including one exposing a DUP minister embroiled in a bonfire controversy.

Mr Crawford, who now advises the DUP on Brexit, was a special adviser (Spad) to party leader Mrs Foster and later to DUP agriculture minister Michelle McIlveen.

In November, the department confirmed it had operated a policy whereby FOI responses needed approval from the minster's Spad before they could be released.

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But some requests to the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) remained unpublished for up to nine months.

A review following Stormont's collapse in 2017 found a backlog of 32 unreleased FOI responses. Around seven would have been due for release while Mr Crawford was still a Daera Spad.

In 2016, The Irish News asked each Stormont department to confirm whether Spads approved FOI responses before their release.

None of the DUP or Sinn Féin-led departments responded. The only response was from the Department of Justice, which had independent unionist Claire Sugden as its minister.

But internal correspondence – contained in one of the seven delayed FOI responses released following Daera's review – shows how Daera officials discussed the press query.

A press response was drafted, but was never released.

In one email, an official said they were "going to get [another civil servant] to clear it with Spad".

An official in another email said: "The centre have asked for all departments to hold fire on responding to this enquiry until they have had the opportunity to consider."

In a further email, an official asked Mr Crawford if the minister was content to issue the response, to which the special adviser said: "No."

The DUP did not respond to requests for a comment.

The FOI backlog emerged after The Irish News asked Daera why it took seven months to respond to a 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".

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.

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