Airport told to go public on Ryanair
The North West Telegraph has won a victory for ratepayers after a tribunal ordered Derry City Council to make public a secret financial deal with Ryanair.
The ruling by the Information Tribunal is regarded as Northern Ireland's greatest victory to date under the Freedom of Information Act.
The tribunal yesterday dismissed the council's appeal against a similar decision by the Northern Ireland Information Commissioner in April, which ordered full disclosure on a deal allowing Ryanair's use of the airport and how much the airline paid to use the facilities.
Council chiefs now have 30 days to either hand over the information or mount a High Court challenge to yesterday's ruling.
The council, which runs City of Derry Airport at a loss from public funds, had initially refused to disclose all information relating to its deal with Ryanair, claiming the information was commercially sensitive.
The North West Telegraph had applied for the details under the Freedom of Information Act believing that it was in the public interest as the deal was the centre of considerable controversy.
North West Telegraph editor, William Allen, said the purpose of the request was not to force the council to disclose details of all commercial arrangements.
"We simply believed there was a major public interest in the details of this particular case, and the Information Commissioner - and now the Information Tribunal - has said we were right," he said.
"Much of the heads of agreement letter at the centre of this issue has been disclosed as a result of our request. But what has been disclosed to date only strengthens our belief that the public interest in the north west is best served by full disclosure," Mr Allen added.
Information given in a redacted version provided by the council earlier this year showed it
would have had to bear Ryanair's costs in the event of the airline having to use Belfast International Airport if a runway extension - on which there was a £1.9m overspend - was not completed on time in 1999.
Another document subsequently leaked to the NW Telegraph showed Ryanair paid a rebated charge of £100 per aircraft turnaround, Ryanair received marketing assistance of £250,000 from various bodies and operational charges for Ryanair were waived.
The tribunal decision, which was today welcomed by the Information Commissioner's office, is now likely to have major implications for public bodies across Northern Ireland as it is the first of its kind concerning the Freedom of Information Act.
Despite losing the case, Derry City Council today said it welcomed the " clarification" brought by the decision, adding that it was now considering whether to appeal.
Yesterday, the tribunal ruled that the risk of prejudice to the council's commercial interests and the economic interests of the region were not sufficient to outweigh the public interest in disclosing the information about the Ryanair deal.
Information Commissioner Richard Thomas said: "It (the decision) reflects my view that it is in the public interest to release this information."
A spokesman for Derry City Council, meanwhile claimed yesterday's decision departed significantly from the decision taken by the Information Commissioner in April
He said: "Derry City Council will consider the tribunal's position in relation to public interest.
"In our view, the lengthy consideration given to all the issues in advance of a narrow judgment is reflective of the complexity of issues facing local authorities who are involved in competitive commercial activities."