Northern Ireland

Transparency concerns as Stormont's collapse blocks some FOI requests

The Public Records Office of Northern Ireland. Picture by Mark Marlow
The Public Records Office of Northern Ireland. Picture by Mark Marlow

TRANSPARENCY concerns have been raised after it emerged the release of certain official records under Freedom of Information (FOI) laws in Northern Ireland has been suspended due to Stormont's collapse.

Watchdog the Information Commissioner's Office has told the Public Record Office for Northern Ireland (PRONI) it does not have the authority to release closed files.

It cites the absence of an elected minister in its overseeing government department, the Department for Communities (DfC).

DfC confirmed these records are "temporarily unavailable" and will remain so "until a minister with responsibility for the department's functions has been appointed".

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said she intended to raise the issue with Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley.

"There is a legal duty to facilitate FOI and she now needs to put in place structures to facilitate that. With no assembly or executive, FOI is one of the few oversight mechanisms left," she added.

FOI legislation gives people a right of access to an array of information held by public bodies.

Civil servants have been running public services in Northern Ireland since the Stormont executive imploded in early 2017, but there has been uncertainty as to how much legal authority they have to take significant decisions.

The FOI issue at PRONI is likely to impact many relatives bereaved during the Troubles who are campaigning for fresh investigations.

Lawyers acting for such families regularly use the PRONI to obtain coroner's files from historic inquests and court papers from old criminal trials.

Belfast firm KRW Law said several of its clients had received letters informing them that DfC cannot respond to their FOI requests.

A spokesman said it meant "our clients cannot obtain vital documentation relating to inquests and appeals to the Court of Appeal and as such their Convention Rights, in particular Articles 2, 6 and 8, are being breached".

A DfC spokesman confirmed certain FOI requests to PRONI are temporarily unavailable.

"This applies only to closed records held by PRONI. All other FOI requests to the department are being processed as normal," he said.

"This is because we have been advised by the Information Commissioner's Office that the Department for Communities does not have the statutory authority to process certain categories of Freedom of Information requests to PRONI without a Minister for the Department for Communities being in post."

Last month, the secretary of state passed legislation designed to give greater clarity on Stormont officials' decision-making powers in the absence of an executive.

In regard to Ms Bradley's legislation, DfC said it "does not provide a legal basis for senior officers to allow the operation of FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) in respect of transferred public records".