News Letter
17 May 2012

A STORMONT department has been ordered to hand over documents to the News Letter within 35 days or face High Court action.

In a landmark ruling, the Information Commissioner yesterday rejected an attempt by the Stormont Executive to claim a special exemption from transparency laws because Northern Ireland has a mandatory coalition.

Almost a year ago the News Letter asked for detailed information on why the Executive did a U-turn last year and allowed Sinn Fein to use public funds to pay its ministerial drivers.

Sinn Fein ministers are driven by republican chauffeurs appointed by the party, rather than by civil servants. The then finance minister Peter Robinson blocked payments to the drivers in 2007 but last year that decision was quietly overturned by the current finance minister, Sammy Wilson.

It is still not clear how much the drivers are paid, how the individuals were selected nor whether the positions were advertised.

The decision to pay the republican drivers from public funds came despite the fact that six of the seven ministerial car accidents have involved Sinn Fein drivers.

After the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) refused to release documents surrounding the decision, the News Letter complained to the Information Commissioner that the decision was in breach of the law.

Yesterday he upheld our complaint.

However, his Decision Notice also sets out an extraordinary attempted justification by the department for withholding documents which the Information Commissioner rejected.

DFP claimed in a submission to the Information Commissioner that “it was important that cohesion was maintained in the enforced five-party coalition”.

It also argued that “given the political make-up of Northern Ireland, that there was a greater political argument to be made for maintaining cohesion within the Northern Ireland Executive where there is an enforced coalition of five political parties”.

The department went on to argue that “disclosure of the information could prevent the maturing of the Executive in Northern Ireland”. In the same submission the department argued that the sums involved were so small that they “diminished the public interest in favour of disclosure”.

However, there is no provision in the Freedom of Information Act (2000) for the Stormont Executive to receive additional exemptions from the law because of its unique make-up.

The Information Commissioner said that the public interest in releasing the documents, which help to explain how public money was spent, overrides Stormont’s claims. The department had also claimed that the information was exempt as it was created during the formulation of government policy and involved ministerial communications.

However, the Information Commissioner said: “Having balanced the public interest arguments for and against disclosure the Information Commissioner has attributed greater weight to the arguments for disclosure and accordingly decided that documents one to nine should be disclosed.”

The Commissioner said that he “recognises the specific political situation in Northern Ireland and accepts the DFPNI arguments that information disclosures could destabilise the Executive”, but said that he believes there is a greater argument for disclosure to “benefit from understanding the thinking behind the policy on ministerial cars and how the decision-making process worked”.

Some Stormont politicians have long been open about their unhappiness at having to comply with Freedom of Information requests, the vast bulk of which come from the public.

After the restoration of devolution in 2007, the then DUP first minister Ian Paisley alleged that “lazy journalists” were using the FoI law. His allegation came a short time after documents about his son, Ian Paisley Jr, and his relationship with developer Seymour Sweeney had been released under the openness law.

And last month it emerged that the Executive wrote to Westminster requesting that it be allowed to charge for Freedom of Information requests, something which in the Republic of Ireland has largely neutered the legislation.

At the time of going to press the department had not responded to a request for comment.