Northern Ireland

Stormont ministers’ pandemic WhatsApps lost after devices wiped, inquiry told

The UK Covid Inquiry is holding a preliminary hearing into the devolved administration’s decision making and response to the pandemic.

Former first minister Baroness Arlene Foster, left, and deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill’s devices were among those affected, counsel to the inquiry said
Former Northern Ireland first minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill Former first minister Baroness Arlene Foster, left, and deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill’s devices were among those affected, counsel to the inquiry said (Niall Carson/PA)

WhatsApp messages sent by former Stormont ministers during the pandemic have been lost after government-issued electronic devices were wiped, the UK Covid Inquiry has been told.

Counsel to the inquiry, Clair Dobbin KC, said this included the devices of former first minister Baroness Arlene Foster and deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill.

The barrister said that the inquiry’s legal team had expressed “grave concern” over the data loss.

The head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service Jayne Brady has been asked to provide a witness statement to explain the circumstances.

WhatsApp messages sent by UK ministers have featured separately in evidence given to the inquiry as it examined decision making by the Government.

The inquiry held a preliminary hearing into the devolved Stormont administration’s response to the pandemic on Tuesday.

The inquiry was told there had been a data loss relating to WhatsApp messages sent by former Stormont ministers
Stormont The inquiry was told there had been a data loss relating to WhatsApp messages sent by former Stormont ministers

Ms Dobbin said informal communications such as WhatsApp messages “may be of a forensic value in preserving what individuals thought or knew at a given point in time”.

She said that after the inquiry was established in 2021, the permanent secretaries of all devolved departments were contacted asking them to ensure no material of potential relevance to the inquiry was destroyed.

Ms Dobbin said the inquiry had sought at “an early point” information on informal communications, including WhatsApp messages, sent by former Stormont ministers or senior civil servants.

She said: “In August 2023, The Executive Office (TEO) notified the inquiry team of a potential loss of data in relation to the Northern Ireland Civil Service supplied devices that were held by former Executive ministers and senior civil servants.

“TEO informed the inquiry that the government-supplied devices of the former first minister Baroness Arlene Foster and the deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill had been reset to factory settings.

“It was said this was also the position in relation to other ministers and meant that no data was available from those devices.”

Ms Dobbin said the inquiry’s legal team immediately expressed “grave concern” and sought the detail of what had happened.

She added: “TEO informed the inquiry that it would ascertain the circumstances of what had happened in which the data loss arose.

“This became a formal investigation.”

Ms Dobbin was addressing inquiry chair Baroness Heather Hallett, pictured
Covid-19 pandemic inquiry Ms Dobbin was addressing inquiry chair Baroness Heather Hallett, pictured

Ms Dobbin said the TEO had provided a report to the inquiry last week and further information was being sought.

The barrister also said that efforts were continuing to recover some of the material which had been lost.

She said: “That some devices have been reset does not mean that there isn’t WhatsApp material, there is.

“We will continue to work to secure that WhatsApp material.”

Addressing inquiry chair Baroness Heather Hallett, Ms Dobbin said: “The question of the wiping or resetting of devices itself remains at large but you will undoubtedly want to have time to consider the report by the TEO and the witness statement and you may also wish to consider the issue of the resetting of devices as part of your overall considerations about the use of informal communications.

“You may want to hear evidence or understand more about the extent in which informal communication was used and the preservation of messaging.

“You may wish to be able to judge the effect of wiping or resetting devices in light of material which is disclosed.”

Ms Dobbin said the inquiry’s legal team had been “demanding” of what it had required of witnesses in Northern Ireland.

“The inquiry team is aware that the absence of powersharing arrangements has added to pressures on departments and civil servants in responding to this inquiry,” she said.

She added that the inquiry had to date received more than 35,000 documents of evidence from Stormont departments, including notes and minutes of Executive meetings and briefing papers.

A barrister representing the Northern Ireland Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group said his clients shared the inquiry’s concerns over the data loss.

Peter Wilcock KC also said he feared that an investigation carried out by TEO may be “insufficiently independent” and said the inquiry should consider whether an independent investigation was required.

He said: “Whilst we acknowledge the efforts put into bottoming out this issue, we trust the inquiry will be equally cognisant of the desire of our clients to have a clear idea of the extent of which such potentially relevant information has been lost.”

Nessa Fee KC, representing TEO, said the work of co-operating with the inquiry’s modules had been “vast” for a small jurisdiction.

She added: “It goes without saying that there has been an absence of government in Northern Ireland since February 2022, the conditions in which the Executive Office and all the other departments are operating in response to this significant inquiry, most notably the financial conditions, are less than ideal.”

She added: “The Executive Office has worked hard to facilitate witnesses with access to the information and documentation they no longer have and that process has also been undertaken for both the former first and deputy first ministers.”

Ms Fee told the inquiry that TEO had received a request for a statement from the head of the NI Civil Service Jayne Brady on the use of informal communications and added that work was under way in Stormont departments to retrieve available data from devices.