Monday, 11 March 2013

NAMA, judges, Orange attacks and Limavady drunks - news roundup

What have newspapers been finding out lately with Freedom of Information? Here's the most recent roundup.

Freedom of Information itself was part of one important story, as Gavin Sheridan of and Information Commissioner Emily O'Reilly ended up in court - the High Court that is, as the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA), the government's 'bad bank', sought to overturn a decision of the Commissioner. She had ruled, in response to a request from Gavin, that NAMA is a public authority.

NAMA is not subject to Freedom of Information legislation but would be subject to Access to Information on the Environment regulations - but only if it is a public authority, a definition it sought to avoid when Gavin made a request under the regulations. The Commissioner, who as well as regulating the Freedom of Information Act is also Commissioner for Environmental Information, agreed with his interpretation. As the Irish Examiner reported, in a ruling that will have surprised nobody outside NAMA, the Court decided that the authority, which exists to serve the public, is indeed a public authority. The Irish Times observed that Justice Mac Eochaidh's ruling dismissed the agency's claims not to be as 'absurd'. Thanks to a parliamentary question from TD Pearse Doherty, Gavin was able to report that the case has cost the taxpayer more than €120,000.

Money continues to be the main focus of many FOI stories. The Irish Times reports that the state's judges have been paid €1.67 million in expenses in the past year, mainly for travel and accommodation. The paper also reported that the opposition party Fianna Fail received almost half a million Euro to cover its legal costs in a recent tribunal. Meanwhile, the Irish Examiner reported on a costly decision by the liquidator of the IBRC, which took over the assets of the disgraced Anglo-Irish Bank. Not challenging a ruling by a judge in London could end up costing Irish banks €460 million.

Despite having a stronger Freedom of Information regime, people living north of the border also have to struggle to get the facts they need, as a letter writer to the Belfast News Letter argued:
Stormont departments, long noted for their reluctance to live by either the letter or the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act (FOI), have taken a new approach to their record-keeping whereby they do not record information which could be embarrassing if made public – thereby escaping the provisions of the Act.
Writing in the paper, Fiona O'Cleirigh argues that the lack of interest in the province by mainstream British media means that central government spending is subject to very little scrutiny:
Strong stories abound in this complex community, which includes a fascinating aerospace industry, and an assortment of quangos that would hardly look out of place in the twilight zone.

When stories do get uncovered, they tend to be about violence rather than money. With 114 attacks made on Orange halls in the past two years, just 12 people have been arrested and only four were charged, according to information disclosed to the News Letter. Meanwhile, the Londonderry Sentinel reports that in Limavady, crimes of violence following closing time in pubs and clubs in the town are averaging one a week.

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