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Sunday 16 March 2003

Please stop being hysterical about Freedom of Information Act

THERE aren't a lot of jokes emerging from the debate about the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill, but here's a big one: in the interests of "openness, transparency and accountability", Sinn Fein opposes it. So the apologists for a secret paramilitary group that has murdered around 60 people for being too free with information are taking a high moral line on what Caoimhghin O Caolain fears might be "a considerable setback for participatory democracy and the involvement of active citizenship". 

If you were looking for a reason to feel sympathetic to the government in its desire to amend the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act, there's one. 

We all know what the Shinners' idea of "active citizenship" is: it means following instructions from SF HQ to make a bloody nuisance of yourself in the cause of discrediting the government and undermining public faith in all other parties. The FoI Act is yet another weapon in their capacious arsenal. But enough about the Shinners: they bore even me. 

I've long abhorred the culture of secrecy in Irish public life, which has been far worse that its British counterpart, yet uneasily I find myself closer to the government than to journalists when it comes to the FoI Act. I have never trusted, and could never trust, Fianna Fail, the political skeleton in my family cupboard, yet having read debates and commentaries and countless pained articles on the proposed changes in the FoI Act, I find myself in bed with my cousins Brian and Conor Lenihan. 

Like Brian, I think the FoI Act of 1997 was "a remarkable revolution in our thinking" but I agree with him, too, that it does not always serve the public interest. It has helped to shine a light on aspects of government and the public service that deserve scrutiny, but it has also had unfortunate side-effects that need to be addressed. 

I agree with Conor, that realistic fees are necessary to stop vexatious enquiries which waste the time of civil servants and the resources of an over-stretched State. I agree with him also that the media have abused the system, by, for instance, enquiring about expenses of deputies and senators up to six times annually. "That makes a mockery of investigative journalism and of our democracy," he says. And he's right. The purpose of the FoI Act was to make information available in response to legitimate enquiries - not to give lazy journalists a cheap story. 

I agree with Brian on the much more substantial point that FoI is counterproductive if it inhibits candour of discussion in government. And it does. Increasingly, debate is going underground. 

In Britain, where you can't see policy papers for 30 years, historians and journalists rush the Public Record Office annually and find startling revelations. In Ireland, since the FoI Act, any civil servant or minister who writes what he thinks is courting professional suicide. 

As Michael McDowell pointed out in the Dail, one of the Act's unintended consequences "was a transmutation of people's attitudes to recording the reasons for making decisions, putting in writing vigorous exchanges of views, contradicting other persons or putting in writing views which would require moral courage rather than expect the approbation of the media if they were revealed." In the long-term, the FoI Act will reduce, not increase, our knowledge of what our governments did and how they arrived at their decisions. 

Nor is the problem just with government. The FoI has inhibited candour everywhere. When it was introduced, it covered 67 bodies: now it covers 370. The Act, for instance, enables a university student to demand to see his exam papers: the result is that no examiner will ever again write an illuminating comment for his colleagues' perusal any more than a manager in the civil service will write informatively about a subordinate. 

It is good that malicious and ill-informed material can no longer lie safely in anyone's file: it is bad that files will increasingly contain only bland information. 

We are hopeless at thinking legislative innovations through: someone gets a fashionable idea, a bill is hastily drawn up, politicians don't bother to scrutinise it, enormous power is handed over to an unelected body and then everyone complains fruitlessly about the consequences. 

The Equality Act has given enormous power over to the ever-expanding empire under Niall Crowley who may yet require you to give a public justification for marrying someone abled, Irish and heterosexual. 

Kevin Murphy, the Information Commissioner, another well-meaning zealot, will make it possible for your mother-in-aw to see your love letters before you've even read them. The FoI Act needs amendment. Can we please stop being hysterical and have a sensible discussion?

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards