Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: We deserve to know the truth of what's in store under Brexit crashout

Eilis O'Hanlon

By Eilis O'Hanlon

There's an old saying in politics that it's not the crime which does the damage. It's covering it up which gets you into trouble every time. Sadly, governments never seem to learn the lesson.

This time it's over planning for a no-deal Brexit, after the Belfast Telegraph put in a Freedom of Information request to find out what plans health trusts have in place in Northern Ireland to ensure essential medical supplies and services continue as normal if the UK leaves the EU without a deal on October 31. It was officially turned down, citing fears of panic.

Now a civil servant has leaked a separate secret report anyway, revealing the "life-threatening implications" which it warns could arise from disruption to supply chains and free movement in the weeks after the Brexit deadline. Particular concerns are raised about cross-border co-operation.

It means the Government not only has to deal with accusations that the country isn't ready to leave the EU.

It also faces the charge that it tried to keep the truth from the public. Pro- and anti-EU politicians will argue furiously over the details of the report, claiming that it's either a worse case scenario that is being deliberately exaggerated in order to thwart the 2016 referendum, or more evidence that the Government is woefully unprepared for the consequences of leaving.

The deeper issue is why elected politicians keep making the same schoolboy errors.

On Saturday the Prime Minister slammed Remainers in Parliament for blocking an election to break the deadlock, saying: "They don't trust the people."

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Boris Johnson's position would be all the stronger if he himself trusted the people with basic information to which they have a right. It's only natural, when faced with this wall of secrecy, for people to wonder: what are they hiding?

That in turn makes it harder to reassure the public that the powers-that-be have matters in hand, because how can we ever be sure what they're not telling us?

The more they keep back, the more suspicions are bound to be raised. And it's getting worse. It was revealed earlier this year that Government departments are turning down a record number of Freedom of Information requests. Nearly four in 10 are withheld in full, and many others partially.

Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry
Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry

Politicians make no bones about the fact that they resent being bombarded with endless appeals for information from inquisitive media organisations or members of the public. Tony Blair said in his autobiography that he regretted introducing the legislation to make it easier.

Fellow former PM David Cameron said it "furs up" the wheels of State.

To be fair, Government departments can get bogged down dealing with enquiries. It takes time, and they're short-staffed. Cameron called it "the buggeration factor".

But as long as national security isn't threatened, the best rule of thumb in a democracy should always be for the Government to treat people as if they're equals, not underlings.

If they don't trust us with the truth, why should we trust them with our votes?

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