Former justice minister criticises decision not to release politicians’ staff names

‘Decision is the antithesis of openness and transparency’, says Charlie Flanagan

Former Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan said he ‘strongly disagreed’ with the decision. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Former Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan said he ‘strongly disagreed’ with the decision. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

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A decision by Oireachtas authorities to refuse to release the names of taxpayer-funded staff employed by TDs and Senators has been criticised by former minister for justice Charlie Flanagan.

The Houses of the Oireachtas service has refused to release the names of parliamentary assistants (PAs) and secretarial assistants (SAs) following a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by The Irish Times.

Some Oireachtas staff and politicians raised concerns, even though the details have up to now always been published: “TDs’ homes are getting attacked, why should we endanger staff?” said Fianna Fáil Senator, Aidan Davitt said.

Saying he “strongly disagreed” with the decision, Mr Flanagan said: “Your decision is the antithesis of openness and transparency that should be the hallmark of public representation and parliamentary membership.”

Sinn Féin TD Mairéad Farrell – who is her party’s spokeswoman on Public Expenditure and Reform – the Government department that oversees the country’s FOI regime – supported the decision: “I think this is certainly the right decision.” Ms Farrell has not responded to questions.

As of November there were 187 PAs and 256 SAs working for politicians. The past publication of such information has led to reports about politicians hiring family members, or councillors having a second State-paid job.

The Irish Times request was refused because “personal information” had been sought, that can be withheld under FOI rules. Twelve objections were lodged against the request.

Citing Supreme Court and Office of the Information Commissioner decisions, the FOI officers said “on balance, the privacy rights of the individuals outweigh the public interest of disclosure.” The Irish Times has appealed the decision.

Records show that the FOI officer did seek to allay fears, saying journalists do not publish the records in full and looking for information about conflicts of interest.

Threats

One staff member asked that the FOI officer consider the “threat of doxing – the tactic of far-right groups to publicly [reveal] previously private personal information about an individual, in order to target harassment towards them.”

The information sought “may be handled responsibly by this journalist, [but] we must also assume that it will be publicly available to everybody and that includes far-right groups”.

Threats against politicians have been made, said the official: “It is unacceptable that they are subjected to it but I think it is absolutely unacceptable that us staff – who have not put ourselves forward for elected office – risk being exposed to similar abuse and harassment by having our names made public.”

Another person said: “We have all seen the [protests] outside reps homes lately and a lot of us do not have LinkedIns or biographies on social media stating what we do, specifically so as not to be identified and possibly subject to abuse as a result.”

They added: “I think this consideration should take priority over a newspaper article that will probably just be on nepotism.”

They suggested another mechanism could be used to inform journalists if someone employs a family member “as I think that is a fair question”.

After the decision to refuse the records Senator Gerard Craughwell wrote to the FOI officer to say that his SA is a “private citizen not related to me and as such is fully entitled to her privacy and respect.

“I am delighted with your decision.”