Freedom of information is a fundamental human right. While the USA enacted their version of the Act in 1966 and amended (improved) it in 1974, it was actually enacted first in 1766 when Sweden became the first country to recognise this basic right of citizens to access personal and other information.

Openness and transparency are the underpinning tenets of any information policies in place so that a society can function in proper democratic fashion. Freedom of information policies have two broad principles,namely (1) decisions undertaken by public bodies should be more open to public scrutiny, and (2) that those who are affected by the decisions of public bodies have a right to know what the criteria are.

In the Republic of Ireland,every citizen has a right to know what information a public body retains on their records in relation to that person.They also have the right to correct inaccurate information and also the right to be given the reason(s) for decisions which personally affect them.

For Irish Citizens these rights were first enshrined by The Freedom of Information Act (1997) which was amended twice,first in 2013 and more recently in 2014.The Act was first empowered on the 21st April 2018 focusing on government Departments and Offices.On the 21st October of the same year a further emphasis of the Act was placed on Local Authorities and Health Boards.

Given the fractious events leading up to the formation of the Irish State in 1922 and that major political parties were formed on both sides of the treaty debate, it is no surprise that a culture of administrative secrecy thrived.The major influence of the Catholic Church should not be underestimated either as it were they who petitioned successive governments for greater censorship legislation.

This culture of secrecy was not beneficial for citizens or news gathers.

http://www.theirishstory.com/2010/07/25/a-short-history-of-freedom-of-information-in-independent-ireland/#.WvW2TPBiKVpThe Irish Official Secrets Act 1963 helped continue the culture of secrecy as it focused more on state security than on transparency.Contravening this Act could result in seven years in prison and could be seen as an excuse for civil servants being reluctant to grant information requests.

The Ombudsman Act (1980) was a first movement towards transparency.Although not primarily concerned with access to information matters, it did allow for public bodies to be investigated. Next came the National Archives Act (1986) which allowed for a historical review of past governments for the first time.There was still a need however for the government in residence to be held accountable for wrongdoings.

The catalyst for change for openness and transparency began when ITV aired a World in Action special about Irish Beef baron Larry Goodman.In 1991,Investigative journalist Susan O’Keeffe (now a Senator on the Agricultural panel) investigated the Irish Meat Industry especially the Goodman International Group.The two programmes focused on tax evasion,political favouritism and beef misappropriation of beef.

As a consequence a tribunal of enquiry (The Beef Tribunal) was set up.The Tribunal substantiated most of her findings, however she was under orders of the Tribunal to reveal her sources and when she refused she was charged by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).She was cleared of the charge of contempt of court and was conferred with the 1994 Freedom of Information Awards.The right to privacy is guaranteed by the constitution which extends to a journalist protecting their sources.

O’Toole (2001) stating the findings of the Beef Tribunal said that Fianna fail were the political party who benefited most from corporate donations.” In one fortnight in 1987 alone, the party got £105,000 from three companies: Goodman International, Master Meats and Hibernia. Donations of £25,000 or £30,000 sometimes coincided with key moments in the process of conferring large public benefits on these companies.”Incredibly justice Hamilton residing at the tribunal that these were normal contributions to a political party and he made no reference to any correlation between corporate payments and political favours received in return.h

The Freedom of Information Act (1997)

Citing Cabinet confidentiality and the Official secrets Act (1963), Government Ministers refused to answer any questions at the 1991 Beef Tribunal.As a consequence when the “Rainbow” coalition took power in 1994,Minister of State Eithne Fitzgerald ( Labour party) said she would “turn the culture of the Official Secrets Act on its head”.

When the Act finally became Law in 1997 it granted extra rights to citizens,the rights to access information held by public bodies,the right to accesss,update and amend private information,and the right to be given reasons why certain decisions were made which had a personal effect.https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/failures-of-beef-tribunal-haunt-us-yet-1.314882

It did put a restriction on cabinet papers being released until five years after publication.

Without digressing too far,corruption in high places led to further enquiries such as the Mahon Tribunal which highlighted ever more so the need for transparency in Irish society.It also copper fastened journalistic privilege.

The Freedom of Information Act (2003)

When the Act was amended in 2003 by the Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrat coalition, it was seen as a regressive step.Two measures introduced would prove to be prohibitive.The first was the introduction of fees.The average cost was set at approximately €200.The year after the Bill was enacted FOI requests reduced by 50%.This bill was detrimental for investigative journalism.

Secondly,Cabinet papers were to held for ten years instead of five in the original Act.The reason given was put down to the sensitive nature of Northern Ireland peace process.

The Freedom of Information Act (2014)

Before the freedom of Information Act was repealed for a second time Gavin Sheridan expressed his concerns on his www.thestory.ie blog.He wrote that this second repeal legislation would “gut further the 2003 Act and that… requests from journalists from all news organisations in Ireland will fall as a result of these amendments, and the resulting efforts to shine a light on the administration of the State will certainly deteriorate” His concern was that secrecy would prevail.https://thestory.ie/2013/11/08/killing-freedom-of-information-in-ireland/

He stated that his blog was started in 2009 and that it had submitted over 200 FOI requests.He also claimed that the data obtained made headlines including The Irish Republic’s request of the EU for a bailout,The Beef tribunal report,The Glackin Report.Mr Sheridan also states that they were successful before the High Court in having Anglo Irish Bank and NAMA classified as public authorities.Legal precedent was created in National Asset Management Agency -v- Commissioner for Environmental Information [2013] IEHC 86,

The Freedom of Information Act 2014 abolished the €15information request.There are no charges below €101 but applications above this threshold will be charged at the full rate.The charges will be capped at €500.http://foi.gov.ie/.For investigative journalists this was good news as the 2003 Act was too restrictive.

The 2014 Act also included in its remit 100 additional public bodies including the Central Bank of Ireland, NAMA, NTMA, An Garda Síochána, the Education and Training Boards (formerly VECs), the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner and the Refugee Applications Tribunal.However a weakness in the Act rests with restricted access to administrative records of the Gardai only.This is not in line with other countries where greater Police accountability prevails.

Conclusion

The Freedom of Information Act is indeed a positive thing for openness and transparency among the government and public bodies in Ireland.Although the 2014 repeal removed most of the restrictions imposed by the 2003 Act it is still not seen by investigative journalists as being as progressive as the original 1997 Act. https://thecity.ie/2014/11/20/you-have-the-right-to-tell-me-everything-the-powers-of-freedom-of-information/

An argument can be stated for civil war politics still having an effect on Irish contemporaneous society which can be seen in how the Freedom of Information Act has progressed since its inception.It was the Fine Gael led “Rainbow” coalition which was responsible for the introduction of the 1997 Act and the Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrat coalition which heavily curtailed its reach with the 2003 repeal.

Only for a further repeal by a Fine Gael/Labour coalition in 2014 which removed most of the 2003 restrictions and went some way towards the 1997 model.Logically,one must suggest that when Fianna Fail next hold the balance of power will the Act be repealed again.One weakness with the current version of the Act is that of the right of accessing documents relating to the Garda Síochána.

It is also worth mentioning the Aarhus Convention (1998) which was ratified by the Irish government in 2012.This is a second avenue available for citizens and investigative journalists to request information.There are 47 parties to this convention including the EU.There are three pillars propping up the principles;(1) access to information,(2) public participation and (3) access to justice.The Convention goes further than the environmental matters and now incorporates the notion of transparency in information requests.

At the 16th Cieraun Media Conference (11-13 November 2016) Sunday Times News Editor Mr Colm Coyle spoke of the value of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests and also the ability to access other publicly available data.

He said that up to five stories which appeared in each edition of The Sunday Times were as a result of FOI requests.In his opinion Freedom of Information was just another tool of the trade for investigative journalism.Most journalists see FOI as extremely frustrating and time consuming and that more often than not the immediacy of a story is lost by the time they receive relevant information.

Mr Coyle cites what he calls “Bread and Butter FOI requests” such as Gardai Siochana Overtime,political pension payments and RTE’s salary scale.Interestingly,RTE refuse to answer one third of Freedom of Information requests.h

At a speech in 2014,Information Commissioner Peter Tyndall spoke of an Ireland without Freedom of Information access.An Ireland without transparency,An Ireland that doesn’t hold its government to account.An Ireland that doesn’t encourage citizen participation.An Ireland that did not discourage corruption.Tyndall makes a convincing case for the positive influence that freedom of Information has had on Irish society.

Tyndall further stated that FOI had a made a significant difference In the following areas;Public spending,Recruitment procedures for public jobs,Inspection reports,Nursing Homes and School inspection reports.

Not forgetting that it was a Freedom of Information request which saw the release of the letter sent by the European Central Bank to the then Irish Finance Minister, the late Brian Lenehan.This led to the Irish governments request for a bailout.

In conclusion,it is worth noting that Fianna Fail were the party political holding the balance of power when the corruption that led to the Beef Tribunal and ultimately to Ireland inserting a Freedom of Information Act into its Constitution.

Mr Charles Haughey was the Taoiseach at the time and ironically he was the Minister of State who signed into law the draconian official Secrets Act (1963) which made Ireland the most secretive democracy in western Europe.

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