Feb 24, 2010 Comments Off on NIO ordered to respond to Sentinel request
NIO ordered to respond to Sentinel request
Published Date: 24 February 2010
THE Northern Ireland Office has been ordered to give secret details of the 1981 hunger strike to the Sentinel – or to explain why it thinks doing so might damage international relations.
The NIO has delayed making a decision on whether to release the information requested under the Freedom of Information Act since last May – even though it was required to do so within 20 working days.
According to the Information Commissioner’s guidelines, the maximum time to be taken, in extraordinary circumstances, should be 40 working days. Despite that, the NIO is today still deciding on its response to the Freedom of Information request submitted on May 29, 2009.
The request was prompted by growing claims that a deal acceptable to the republican prisoners was offered before the fifth hunger striker died, but their wishes were over-ruled by republican sources outside the prison. It was claimed that this was done because it may have interfered with a forthcoming election, which marked the rise of Sinn Fein as a political force.
In its initial response to the request, the NIO invoked the section 27 exemption which exists, “to protect the United Kingdom’s international relations, its interests abroad and the United Kingdom’s ability to protect and promote those interests”.
Therefore, before deciding how to respond, the NIO must consider the public interest – and decide whether the public interest in providing the documents is outweighed by the damage or likely damage that would be caused by disclosure to the United Kingdom’s “international relations, its interests abroad or its ability to protect and promote those interests”.
It is understood that other countries’ views on what harm disclosure might cause are taken into consideration when the public interest test is applied in such cases. In this case, it is not known what other country is being considered in the deliberations, though contacts between the Government and the Irish government formed part of the Freedom of Information request.
Initially the NIO said some of the requested information was subject to the exemption under section 27, but when clarification was later sought, said that “all” of the information was subject to the exemption.
After a complaint was made to the Information Commissioner in October, saying the delay in making a decision was unreasonable, the NIO has now been told to specify the relevant sub-section of the exemption that explains “why disclosure would, or would be likely to, prejudice international relations”.
It must also say whether it has concluded that the public interest is best served by making the requested details public, or whether it’s best served in keeping them secret – or even if it no longer considers the exemption to apply.
The Information Commissioner’s Office found that the NIO breached a number of sections of the Freedom of Information Act. It failed to respond within 20 working days to say that all of the information requested was subject to an exemption; it did not specify the relevant sub-section; and adjusted its time frame on a number of occasions, leading to a finding that the delay in carrying out a public interest test was in breach of section 17 (3)(b) of the act.
It has 35 days to respond, though it also has the right to appeal against the decision notice issued by the Information Commissioner’s Office.
The NIO failed to meet a number of deadlines even after the complaint was made to the Information Commissioner’s Office alleging that the delay in giving a substantive response was unreasonable.
According to the Information Commisioner’s decision notice, the NIO informed the Commissioner in correspondence on November 13 that the delay was regrettable but not unreasonable due to it “having a number of unusual aspects”. It detailed some of these, particularly the difficulty of consulting with the various interested stakeholders about the potential disclosure of information.
At that point, the NIO hoped a response could be provided by December 3 “but, in any event, by 4 January 2010”.
On January 5, the deadline was shifted to February 20, though that has now been extended as the decision notice requires a response within 35 working days.
In its decision notice, the Information Commissioner’s Office acknowledged the reasons given by the NIO to justify its delay, but added: “However, the Commissioner is of the view that the time now taken to weigh up the public interest test is unwarranted, being well in excess of the prescribed 40 working day limit.”