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Stormont stonewalling an insult to public

By Fionola Meredith

Published 28/01/2016

I worry about the autocratic tendencies of the Stormont administration, the sense of entitlement that makes politicians forget that they are directly accountable to the people who put them there. Us. That's who I'm talking about. The electorate.

It is especially disturbing when information that is of particular importance to the public is restricted or denied. It's reasonable for people to know what has happened to the body of serial child killer Robert Black. Yet all requests to find out are being met with a resolutely deaf ear by the Prison Service and Department of Justice.

Did Black's funeral take place in Northern Ireland? If so, are his remains buried here? Was he cremated? How much did the funeral cost? And who paid?

These are fair questions, which deserve a full, prompt response from the authorities. But no answers are forthcoming.

It is entirely understandable that people dislike the idea of public money being spent on funeral arrangements for a man such as Black.

Equally, there is revulsion at the thought of his body being buried anywhere in Northern Ireland.

It is thought that prison chiefs wanted him to be cremated and his ashes disposed of elsewhere. But because of this inexplicable wall of obfuscation, we don't know if that is what has actually happened.

Of course, Black's remains had to be disposed of somehow after he died in Maghaberry Prison.

His family did not come forward, so the authorities had to deal with the distasteful situation, preferably as swiftly - and cheaply - as possible.

But it is a matter of basic democratic accountability, in a case of such widespread interest, to inform people what course of action was taken.

Withholding the details of issues such as this speaks of a disrespect for the public at large. One of the most telling indicators of an evolved, confident and even-handed administration is its attitude to the free flow of public information.

Too often, however, providing the facts is treated as an optional extra, something to be begrudgingly complied with after much foot-dragging, and Stormont has a particularly poor score when it comes to being forthcoming with the truth.

The UK Information Commissioner's Office has previously monitored both the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister and the Department of Finance and Personnel over repeatedly failing to disclose information on time. Much of this impulse towards secrecy and the crude desire to control comes from fear and suspicion of the Press.

We know that Stormont is absurdly over-endowed with Press officers, but too often the emphasis is on defensively stone-walling reasonable requests for information, rather than confidently presenting the salient facts.

The public rightly expects the media to ask pertinent - and sometimes even impertinent - questions on its behalf.

When full and frank replies are not available, as in the case of the mysterious disposal of Black's remains, it leaves a bitter taste in everyone's mouths.

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