Chaotic local authority’s own staff were unsettled by what they saw, prompting whistleblowing, an inquiry and resignations
Five months ago on a Friday afternoon, something extraordinary happened in Northern Ireland’s most dysfunctional council.
Even by the standards of what by then was chaotically common in Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, what unfolded that midwinter afternoon was so alarming that some council staff were deeply unsettled by what was happening.
Some of those staff have now quit their jobs in an organisation which is now verging on the anarchic, with dark suspicions swirling amid warring staff.
This story began five days before Christmas when the Belfast Telegraph made two Freedom of Information (FoI) requests to the council based on a tip-off about alleged irregularities in the council’s handling of multi-million pound redevelopment projects in Glenarm.
Nine days later, the council’s FoI team asked for clarification of what was being sought; that was quickly given, and we were told to expect a response early in the new year.
But behind the scenes something was happening that would make a mockery of that suggested timeline.
In line with standard practice, the council’s FoI team had asked the relevant council directorates for any information they held relating to the request; the FoI specialists would then sift through it and make recommendations about what could legally be withheld under the many complex FoI exemptions which allow public bodies to withhold certain material.
They went to the office of chief executive Anne Donaghy — at that point suspended by the council as part of a long-running internal row which remains unresolved and in which she denies wrongdoing.
Ms Donaghy’s personal assistant had provided them with more than 600 pages of documentation relevant to the request.
Much of the material was communications between Ms Donaghy and the council’s corporate solicitor, Elaine Kirk.
Yet when Ms Kirk was asked for material, multiple sources within the council have said that she supplied almost nothing to the FoI team.
The FoI team asked her multiple times for the information she held.
It is claimed that Ms Kirk initially just sent a development brief, but, when pressed, then referred to other emails which she held but, which she said were covered by legal professional privilege.
The FoI team told her that they already had emails between her and Ms Donaghy which they believed were not covered by legal professional privilege and so should be released.
The following day, the FoI team sent her conflict of interest sheets, and score sheets in relation to one of the Glenarm developments, with Ms Kirk objecting on the grounds that they were commercially sensitive.
A source said that she told the FoI team that “under no circumstances should any emails or any of my documents be released without my authority”.
Within about an hour of that clash, and as the FoI team moved towards recommending release of much of the material, a key meeting was held.
That January 21 meeting involved acting chief executive Philip Thompson; Louise McAloon from Worthingtons (a solicitor who is the council’s external human resources adviser); Ms Kirk; the council’s head of HR Richard Cromie, and acting director of corporate services Steven Walls.
The outcome of the meeting was to immediately delete the FoI disclosure log — a list of all the information previously released on any topic — from the council website and to also remove permission for its FoI team to access the folders on the council’s networked drive necessary to do their jobs.
The FoI team returned from their lunch to find themselves shut out of the system without warning or explanation as to why such extreme action had been taken.
Dismayed and alarmed by how they were being prevented from doing their jobs, the three members of the FoI team went off sick.
That fact became well-known across the council, with one employee saying that they had been under enormous pressure, facing the insinuation that they had done something wrong when they had in fact been attempting to comply with their contractual obligations.
Days later, an anonymous whistleblower’s letter was sent to DUP councillor Billy Ashe making a series of allegations about what had happened in relation to the request.
When approached for this article, Mr Ashe declined to comment.
Multiple sources have now told this newspaper that the reason given for the extreme action that Friday afternoon was a claim that the FoI team had wrongly released information in relation to another request.
That request had come from Nipsa assistant secretary Alan Law and related to last year’s row over the council’s decision to withdraw some of its staff involved in Irish Sea border checks at Larne Port.
Mr Law had in September 2021 asked for material relating to a meeting involving senior council figures and had asked for a copy of any correspondence containing the phrase “surely the chief’s position is now untenable?”.
That information had been released to him and was on the council website from October, seemingly without complaint.
But at the very point the Glenarm information was close to being released, a complaint emerged.
It appears to have come from Ms McAloon, the solicitor from Worthingtons who does considerable work for the council.
She was said to have been “outraged” that it had been released, claiming that legally privileged information had been erroneously made public.
The implication was that the FoI team had been at best negligent and at worst incompetent.
However, no disciplinary or performance management actions were taken against them, suggesting that there was not a belief that they were as seriously at fault as the action against them suggested.
The Belfast Telegraph understands that the council subsequently received independent advice from a FoI specialist in England that what they had done was correct.
To test that, this month I asked for an exact copy of what had been released to Mr Law.
The council responded with everything which had been released to Mr Law, showing the council now accepts that was not wrongly released, as claimed in January.
I asked Ms McAloon whether she now accepts she was mistaken in her belief the information had been erroneously released by the council, and what training or expertise she had in the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 which led her to suggest the FoI specialists in the council had made such a serious mistake.
Ms McAloon responded to say: “I cannot comment due to client confidentiality. Our legal advice to the council is confidential and subject to legal professional privilege.”
Ms Kirk was asked why she had allegedly provided so little information to the council’s FoI team and whether she had withheld any material from the council FoI team based on her own judgement that the material was exempt from release.
Ms Kirk did not respond.
We also asked Mr Walls and Mr Thompson if they stood over their agreement with the steps taken in relation to the FoI team. They did not reply.
Instead, the council responded with a corporate statement which hinted at suing this newspaper for libel — something almost unheard of in the public sector.
It said that it had “engaged specialist external/independent legal advisors in relation to the application/scope of the legal professional privilege exemption” but accepted that “there was unacceptable delay in processing the request”.
Responding to this newspaper’s reasonable questions about how senior public servants had behaved, it said: “Your emails to employees of council appear to convey an intention on your part to both identify and potentially defame council employees.
“In the event that your source/s have or might reasonably be adjudged to have ulterior motives in providing you with information relating to your proposed article then any balanced article to be published should make this clear.
“Council do not consider that there is any public interest in an article targeting its employees or making unfounded and disputed allegations of wrongdoing against any employee. Council reserves its rights on its behalf and on behalf of its employees in respect of any article/publication.”
The FoI team’s access to their folders was restored in mid-February, by which stage a huge backlog of about 50 FoI requests had built up — with no one to respond.
The team started to return after about three weeks and resumed their jobs — but now most of the them are quitting.
The unusual seriousness of this situation is reflected in the fact that the council brought in ASM, an external consultancy, to undertake an investigation into how the Glenarm requests from this newspaper and Mr Law’s request had been handled.
That report is understood to have been completed but the council refused to give us a copy yesterday, instead delaying the process by saying that it would consider it as a FoI request.
The council’s handling of the request about development in Glenarm has caused intense internal interest in why it has fought release so unusually robustly — breaking the law in order to do so and acting in a way which has contributed to most of its own FoI unit losing faith in their employer.
The council has released all manner of embarrassing material over the last year without this behaviour.
It has also responded to many awkward media queries — some of them from this newspaper — about named individuals’ actions without coming close to threatening to sue.
Its actions here suggest a particular sensitivity about the material on Glenarm.
Just over a week ago, after being ordered to respond by the Information Commissioner or face High Court action, the council finally released hundreds of pages of material to the Belfast Telegraph.
Next week this newspaper will bring you details of what they reveal.