Belfast Telegraph

Brexit paper's non-publication prior to referendum 'may have breached code'

A failure to publish a Civil Service briefing paper outlining the negative implications of Brexit on Northern Ireland ahead of the EU referendum could represent a breach of Stormont's ministerial code, the Assembly has heard.

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt asked Stormont's Speaker to consider whether the non-publication of the briefing document, which detailed a series of negative economic consequences for Northern Ireland if the UK left the European Union, breached the code on openness.

Mr Nesbitt said the code stated that information should be restricted only when it was in the public interest to do so.

"I suggest that it was in the public interest for this document to be published," he said.

The leader of Stormont's biggest Opposition party also asked Speaker Robin Newton to examine the official report of Assembly proceedings to assess whether the House had been misled on the extent of Executive contingency planning for a Brexit vote.

Mr Newton said he would pursue the latter request but pointed out that matters relating to the sharing of Executive information were outside his responsibilities.

The paper, referred to as a "preliminary analysis" of a UK exit, was compiled in May 2015 but only released into the public domain after June's referendum vote, and then only in response to Freedom of Information (FoI) requests.

It was also not circulated among the Executive's smaller parties prior to the vote.

The document was published this week by investigative news website The Detail.

The 15-page paper drawn up by the European Policy and Co-ordination Unit in the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister (since re-named The Executive Office) listed more than 20 ways which an EU exit could hit Northern Ireland's economy.

The DUP campaigned for Brexit in the referendum while Sinn Fein backed a remain vote.

Questioned why the paper was not made public, the DUP said it was not common practice to publish internal scenario planning documents.

"Working papers are commonly circulated amongst officials as part of the machinery of government," said a party spokesman.

He said the paper had also not examined potential advantages of leaving the EU.

"Such an obvious omission renders the document of only limited use," he added.

Suggesting he favoured publishing the document, Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness stressed that the sign-off of both main parties was needed to release such a paper.

In Northern Ireland, 56% of voters backed the UK remaining with the EU.

The Executive Office (TEO) later issued a statement on the contentious document. It said the First Minister and Deputy First Minister were not initially sent the "working paper" when it was completed and only became aware of it after the first FoI was submitted. That request was received in February - four months before the referendum.

A TEO spokesman said: "The document in question was commissioned by the Head of the Civil Service in May 2015.

"Officials prepare a range of papers on a regular basis, many of which are working papers and do not form submissions sent to Ministers.

"This analysis paper was not sent to Ministers for consideration following its completion.

"Following a Freedom of Information request to the Department, Ministers became aware of this work and the document was released on two occasions following Freedom of Information requests.

"The Executive Office could not have taken sides in the referendum campaigns in the absence of an agreed position.

"In any case the document contains well rehearsed arguments which were openly being aired during the referendum campaign and would have added nothing to the wider debate."


From Belfast Telegraph