The Irish Times view on FOI and the presidency: let in the light

All presidential candidates should pledge their support for bringing the office under the Act

President Michael D Higgins with former presidents Mary McAleese and Mary Robinson at Áras an Uachtaráin at a 2013 event to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Irish Presidency. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

President Michael D Higgins with former presidents Mary McAleese and Mary Robinson at Áras an Uachtaráin at a 2013 event to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Irish Presidency. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

The introduction of the Freedom of Information Act in 1997 was a milestone for transparency in the public service. Opening government departments and state agencies to that new level of scrutiny was an important advance, giving citizens new insights into how government worked, how influence was wielded and how decisions were made.

Critics of the legislation, notably civil servants, say it has resulted in far less being written down. Instead, they suggest, sensitive information is now transmitted in ways that leave no paper or digital trail. That problem is exaggerated; civil servants have always been careful in choosing what to put in writing. Of far more concern have been moves to undermine the Act, notably by the Fianna Fáil-led government that introduced new fees in 2003, and the wide exemptions given to certain bodies (the Fine-Gael Labour coalition, to its credit, largely restored the original provisions in 2014). The Department of Foreign Affairs, for example, is far too heavily insulated from the provisions of the Act.

Then there’s Áras an Uachtaráin. The presidency is totally exempt from the Act, meaning even the most routine records relating to the head of state or their office cannot be accessed by the public. That’s wrong. In 2014, when the then minister for public expenditure, Brendan Howlin, resisted calls to bring the Áras under the Act, he said that doing so would not be in keeping with the independence of the presidency from the political sphere. Transparency would not dilute the president’s independence, however. If anything, it would strengthen the connection between the office and the people.

All candidates for the presidency this autumn should pledge their support for the campaign to bring the office under the Act. President Michael D Higgins has already said he would have no objection to that. But there are also more immediate steps that could be taken to open up the Áras. Exemption from the legislation does not preclude a president from voluntarily making records publicly available. That would be a good start.

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