Belfast Telegraph

Stuff your Freedom of Information: Our democracy is at risk when civil servants hide the truth

Healthy democracies enable the free flow of information, says Fionola Meredith - but toxic ones hinder it

Civil service chief David Sterling has admitted that meetings with government ministers were not being minuted
Civil service chief David Sterling has admitted that meetings with government ministers were not being minuted

Remember that old Troubles-era mantra - "Whatever you say, say nothing"? Perhaps it should be dusted off and used as the slogan for the Northern Ireland Civil Service, after the extraordinary admission by civil service chief David Sterling that meetings with government ministers were not minuted in order to thwart Freedom of Information (FoI) requests.

Giving evidence at the RHI inquiry, Mr Sterling said it was "safer sometimes not to have a record".

Why? Because ministers liked having a "safe space where they could think the unthinkable and not necessarily have it all recorded". Besides, the DUP and Sinn Fein were known to be sensitive to criticism, and didn't want unpopular decisions, under consideration by ministers, emerging through FoI into the public domain.

Ah, I get it. Refraining from recording these meetings was just a nice, cosy habit the staff got into in order to keep ministers protected from harm. Like snowflake students, politicians needed a "safe space" where they would be shielded from difficult questions and nobody would be nasty or disagree with them. Poor diddums. Maybe they should have comfort blankets and puppies to cuddle, too.

What shocked me most about Mr Sterling's statement - apart from the outrageous admission that civil servants were deliberately not recording vital conversations and meetings about ministerial decisions, concerning how vast sums of public money were to be spent - was the matter-of-fact manner in which he delivered it.

Didn't he realise the enormity of what he was saying, and the consequences for democratic accountability?

Doesn't he see that there is something terribly wrong with cloaking the mechanisms of power in secrecy, blatantly taking steps to keep the public in the dark?

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There is a myth, popular among leading politicians, that the media is the enemy. Now it seems that anyone at all who asks questions is also considered a problem, a threat from which politicians must be kept "safe".

But since when has it been the role of the civil service to provide cover for such autocratic arrogance and paranoia? And what about the public's need to stay safe from the uselessness of politicians?

The hush-hush mentality of our political over-lords, and their hucksterish appetite for deals (or no deals) behind closed doors is, of course, legion. They are notorious for it.

What they don't realise is that the free flow of public information is one of the most important markers of an evolved, competent democracy. Enlightened administrations know that openness, transparency and accountability ventilate government and keep it healthy. In the same way, the restriction of information is a sign of toxic politics, a closed hothouse liable to breed incompetence and corruption.

Foot-dragging and reluctance by officials appears to be standard practice when it comes to responding to FoI requests and again, Northern Ireland is known for it.

Requests can be denied on the grounds of commercial considerations, or data protection, or the future development of policy, and they frequently are. Special advisers (Spads), unsackable and accountable only to the minister that appoints them, hover constantly like hawks, ready to pounce on requests and kill them off, if they can. If you are unhappy with your FoI denial, you can request an internal review, which drags the process out still further, and if you are turned down again you may appeal to the Information Commissioner.

Even if you are fortunate enough to eventually get an answer, the whole palaver can take six months or more, by which time the initial question may well have become redundant.

And then maybe you'll be less likely to put in another request, because it's taken such a lot of time and effort, for very little return. This is how the system - theoretically "open and responsible", according to the ministerial code - disincentivises scrutiny.

Now we know that the most important information is not recorded anyway. So you can stuff your FoI, it's pointless.

It is not a shock that Stormont is home to a dark culture of secrecy and control freakery. We have known that for years. What is new, and seriously disturbing, is that public servants have taken it upon themselves to facilitate that culture.

Sealed in their own small world, it is as if the NI Civil Service has contracted a form of Stockholm Syndrome, the condition where hostages develop a psychological alliance with their captors as a survival strategy.

Officials seem to have acquired the same instinct to hide and obfuscate as the politicians, perhaps in a misguided attempt to protect the administration, or even the peace process itself.

But at what cost? When the truth is routinely hidden from the people, democracy dies.

Belfast Telegraph


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