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Derry airport forced to disclose secret deal

By Sarah Brett and Brian Hutton

Published 13/12/2006

A two-year legal battle begun in the offices of the Belfast Telegraph has forced a publicly-owned Northern Ireland airport to disclose a secret deal with Europe's largest low-cost airline.

In a landmark case, which could have major implications for public bodies throughout the UK doing business with private enterprises, City of Derry Airport has been told to reveal its financial arrangements with Ryanair.

The ruling by the Information Tribunal follows a two-year fight by airport owners Derry City Council against a Freedom of Information request lodged by a former Belfast Telegraph journalist.

Council chiefs refused to hand over details of how much Ryanair was paying for use of the ratepayer-funded airport when asked by North West Telegraph reporter Brian Hutton in January 2005.

The case went before the Information Commissioner, who ruled the details must be disclosed in February last after a year-long examination of the arguments. The council fought the decision in an appeal to the Information Tribunal, which sat in Northern Ireland for the first time in October to hear the appeal.

In a 30-page ruling, the three-panel tribunal dismissed the appeal and has given the council 30 days from yesterday to disclose the deal to Derry residents, who pay some of the highest rates in Northern Ireland.

It said Freedom of Information Act exemptions claimed by the council did not apply and disagreed the local authority would be vulnerable to a claim for breach of confidence. The council has until next month to appeal this decision to the High Court on a point of law.

The Information Commissioner Richard Thomas welcomed the decision by the Information Tribunal and said it reflects his view that it is in the public interest to release such information.

"The Freedom of Information Act allows the public much greater access to information held by public authorities, and where information is not exempt or there is a strong case for its disclosure in the public interest, I will order its release." he said.

Derry City Council argued disclosure of the deal would risk prejudicing its commercial interests and the economic interests of the region, but the tribunal ruled that threat wasn't significant enough to outweigh the public interest in opening up the details. During the appeal hearing, council chief executive Anthony McGurk agreed the airport was costing ratepayers in the region of £1.3m a year.

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