What the RHI Inquiry tells us about the ‘chilling effect’ of freedom of information laws

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The report into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme provided an insight into the functioning of government in Northern Ireland. Ben Worthy examines the extent to which it revealed that freedom of information laws have produced a ‘chilling effect’ and affected the completeness of the public record when it comes to ministerial discussions and decisions.

One of the biggest fears for transparency campaigners is that Freedom of Information (FOI) laws could create an incentive to hide instead of open up. Could the presence of such laws lead to officials and politicians trying to hide from them, or even fight them? The particular concern is that laws designed to increase transparency might instead empty out the official record, so that meetings go un-minuted, conversations go unrecorded and that important audit trails simply disappear. Even where it goes on, this so-called ‘chilling effect’ is notoriously hard to prove. 

This was one of the many concerns raised as a consequence of scrutiny of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme in Northern Ireland. The alleged mishandling of the scheme partially led to the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive in January 2017 and prompted an official inquiry, which reported last month. Back in March 2018, giving evidence to the RHI Inquiry, the Head of Northern Ireland’s Civil Service, David Sterling, admitted that ‘the practice of taking minutes had “lapsed” after devolution’ and mentioned FOI specifically as a factor. Continue reading

Northern Ireland: politics on the move, destination uncertain

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Three years on from the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive m prompted by the RHI scandal, a power sharing government has returned to Stormont on the back of a deal that promises a ‘new approach’. Alan Whysall analyses the new deal, how it might work in practice and what pitfalls might await the new ministerial team.

We have devolved government in Northern Ireland once more, with a new political deal, New Decade, New Approach. This is a cause for real hope, responding to the public mood, and the politics dictate it must operate for the moment. Many of the underpinnings are, however, fragile. Government and politics need to operate differently if they are to succeed in the longer term.

The last thousand days

Government in Northern Ireland has been in abeyance for three years. In early 2017, one of the two main parties, Sinn Féin, withdrew over the involvement of the other, the DUP, in a mismanaged sustainable energy scheme, the Renewable Heat Incentive. Beneath the surface were other tensions, notably around respect for Irish identity – crystallised latterly in demands from Sinn Féin and others for an Irish Language Act. Division between the parties was sharpened by Brexit, which the DUP favoured but others did not; and later by its Westminster alliance with the May government. 

While devolution operated, parties in government had moderated their language. Once it collapsed, rhetoric, and feeling in parts of the community, became hardened and polarised, reminiscent of the atmosphere before the Good Friday Agreement. The British government, under uninspiring Secretaries of State and writhing in its Brexit agonies, incurred universal mistrust. Relations between London and Dublin became tense. The prospect of Irish unity through a border poll – which the Agreement makes in principle a matter for simple majorities in both parts of Ireland – featured increasingly in Sinn Féin’s approach, and appeared from opinion polling to be growing closer. Paramilitaries on both sides saw opportunities in the political vacuum; last spring dissident Republicans, seeking to kill police officers, murdered a journalist, Lyra McKee.

There was at first remarkable equanimity over the extraordinary situation of Northern Ireland being left without government, beyond civil servants minding the shop. The British government hesitated to impose direct rule, as in the past; its dependence on the DUP would have made such a step destabilising. 

A report late last year by the new Northern Ireland think tank Pivotal shows how seriously Northern Ireland has suffered from inattention to its grave economic and social problems, under devolution and since. Continue reading

Light and shadows: the RHI scandal and the temptations of secrecy

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The RHI inquiry in Northern Ireland has led to concerns about a record ‘void’ that has left room for doubt and suspicion. Ben Worthy argues that the lack of a record might aid political deniability, but means that politicians also can’t be truly exonerated when accused of wrongdoing.

Marilyn Stathern, in her famous article on the ‘Tyranny of transparency’, asked: ‘what does visibility conceal’?  While openness can shed light on some areas, it can also create shadows and shade to hide in. One of the biggest fears for transparency campaigners is that openness will create an opposite and equal reaction. Instead of letting in the light, could freedom of information laws, open meetings or open data lead to officials and politicians trying to hide from them, or even fight them? Could it create what’s called a ‘chilling effect’, whereby officials and politicians bury their decisions elsewhere?

Finding any firm evidence for resistance, avoidance or concealment is notoriously difficult. It could take place in numerous ways, whether avoiding questions or requests, keeping records and decisions off paper, or using non-official emails or networks like WhatsApp. It’s hard to prove a negative, that something isn’t happening and, if avoidance done well, it should stay hidden. Only the most incompetent or inept are likely to be caught.

A few concrete examples have surfaced. We have had flashes of an apparent ‘chilling’ in the Trump White House and closer to home with Michael Gove using a private email address for public business in 2012 (as urged by his then adviser Dominic Cummings). More worrying was the evidence in Scotland in 2018 that some parts of government were engaged in ‘deliberate delaying tactics and requests being blocked or refused for tenuous reasons’. But are these isolated cases or the tip of an iceberg of systematic resistance? Studies have come to varying conclusions and a select committee in 2012 concluded that there was no firm evidence.

However, it now looks as though transparency campaigners’ worst nightmare has come to pass in Northern Ireland’s RHI scandal, as detailed in Sam McBride’s new book Burned. The RHI scandal, as the later Inquiry FAQ explains, concerns ‘the non-domestic renewable heat incentive… a financial incentive for businesses to move away from non-renewable sources of energy’. However, the FAQ goes on, ‘how the scheme came about in the form in which it was adopted, how it has been operated and the possible financial consequences of the scheme have become the source of considerable public concern’. You can see the background here and a timeline. Continue reading

Northern Ireland and a border poll: hard truths

Alan_Rialto2 (1)The Brexit issue continues to fuel speculation about the prospects of Irish unity following a border poll. Here Alan Whysall, Senior Honorary Research Associate at the Constitution Unit, author of the Unit’s paper on the subject published in March, and a member of the working group bringing in colleagues from Belfast and Dublin that will look further at the implications of a poll, warns that there are serious dangers looming here for both parts of Ireland – as well as the British government and the wider UK.

The potential breakup of the UK is now spoken about more often than it has perhaps been since the 1920s, fed by the heated politics of Brexit and by evolutions in opinion revealed in polling in Northern Ireland (and Scotland). Some polling in England suggests a willingness to contemplate this, especially if it is the price of Brexit. The subject is sometimes raised rather matter-of-factly in discussion in Great Britain, on an apparent assumption that quick and clean breaks are possible. 

In the case of Ireland, at least, this is not so. There are a number of hard realities meaning that any process of Irish unity is likely to be drawn out, and at all stages capable of tipping over into heightened tensions, instability and conflict. And hence a serious preoccupation for the UK, as well as for Ireland. The situation requires handling with extreme care and sensitivity, and not least from London. But its conduct in the last few weeks has all tended to exacerbate the situation.

This blog sets out some of the realities and pitfalls – and why the latter are at present becoming more likely and more serious.

Northern Ireland has a right to leave the UK on the basis of the majority vote

Northern Ireland differs from other parts of the UK in that there is a principle already established in political agreements and in international law that it should leave the UK and become part of a United Ireland in certain circumstances – if a majority of its inhabitants voting in a poll, and the majority also in the rest of Ireland, is in favour. This is a cornerstone of the Good Friday Agreement, and embodied also the parallel Treaty between the UK and Ireland.

And there is a mechanism to bring the principle to life: the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, with parliamentary approval, must call a referendum (usually called in Northern Ireland a ‘border poll’) at any time it seems likely that a majority would favour Irish unity. 

Continue reading

Holding a border poll in Northern Ireland: when does it need to happen and what questions need to be answered?

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The prospect of a poll in Northern Ireland about Irish unification, provided for by the Good Friday Agreement and often termed a ‘border poll’, is now widely discussed. But the provisions and wider implications of the law and the Agreement are little explored. The Constitution Unit is considering a project to examine this, and Alan Whysall here gives an overview of the key questions.

Support for a united Ireland appears to be rising. There is little to suggest a majority for unity now, but in the context of Brexit provoking serious strains it might arise. This blog is mainly about process. But the real world risks are high. An early poll, particularly if it takes place in a political atmosphere that is strained following a hard Brexit, could seriously destabilise both parts of Ireland, and put at risk the political gains of recent decades.

Current outlook on border polls

Northern Ireland Unionists have largely ignored or dismissed the prospect of a poll. But the former First Minister Peter Robinson last year urged unionism to prepare.

Nationalists, while looking forward to a poll, have often been vague as to when this might happen. Sinn Féin now appears to favour one immediately after a no deal Brexit. The SDLP propose there should first be a forum to establish the shape of a united Ireland.

The Irish government has been hesitant. The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has suggested that raising the prospect now is disruptive and destructive, and has in the past questioned the wisdom of Irish unity founded on a 50% plus one vote in Northern Ireland.

The UK government has consistently rejected ideas of any early poll. But during recent debate on a no deal Brexit, leaks have emerged of its apparent fears that such an outcome would trigger a poll, dismissed by unionists as ‘Project Fear’.

Recent surveys on Northern Ireland appear to show a marked trend towards a united Ireland. None yet suggests an overall majority, but polling last September suggested 52% of people there would vote in favour in the event of Brexit. However different surveys produce sharply different results and the accuracy of some polling methodologies is questioned. Indeed opinion polling in Northern Ireland has for long thrown up particular problems. Continue reading

Intergovernmental relations: a blueprint for reform

downloadSince the Brexit referendum in 2016, the case for an overhaul of the management of intergovernmental relations has become much stronger. Jack Sheldon explains that in a new report, he and his colleagues have advanced the first detailed proposals for reform of the existing arrangements. These include formalising and restructuring the current ad hoc system, implementing a method of consensus decision-making, and increasing the transparency of the system.

It is widely agreed that the ad hoc and under-developed arrangements for relations between the UK government and the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are in urgent need of an overhaul. Even before the vote to leave the EU, several parliamentary committees, leading politicians and a number of constitutional experts called for reform. Since 2016 the case has only become stronger. Brexit-related ‘IGR’ has been marked by sharp disagreement over policy and process, against the background of low trust between governments. And it is envisaged that IGR will assume greater importance in the coming years, given the need to implement, govern and review ‘common frameworks’ in devolved areas currently covered by EU law.

In a new report Professor Nicola McEwen, Professor Michael Kenny, Dr Coree Brown Swan and I advance proposals for reform of the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) structure – the primary forum within which formal IGR takes place. While the need to renew the JMC has frequently been recognised in recent years, few detailed proposals have been made. We seek to fill this gap, setting out 27 conclusions and recommendations. Our report is also distinctive in drawing heavily on experience of IGR in five broadly comparable multi-level political systems – Australia, Belgium, Canada, Italy and Spain. We were invited to produce the report by officials in the UK and devolved governments who are currently working on a review of IGR commissioned by the JMC itself, and hope that our conclusions will help to shape thinking as the review proceeds.

Principles of IGR

Existing principles underpinning intergovernmental relations, as articulated in the Memorandum of Understanding on devolution, are broadly stated and prone to being interpreted very differently by the various parties involved. For example, what amounts to ‘good’ communication and what is ‘practicable’ with respect to information exchange are matters of (often diverging) judgement. Continue reading

Challenges to good government in Northern Ireland: charting a future course

alan_rialto2-1The first part of this blog looked at Northern Ireland’s troubled experience with government without ministers for the last year and a half; while the Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry offered colourful but not uplifting revelations about the way it had been conducted under devolution; and Westminster’s conduct of its responsibilities was widely questioned. Alan Whysall asks what lies behind these problems?

A lack of interest in good government and public policy has long been part of the Northern Ireland political culture. The dialogue in politics and the media has always readily reverted to the traditional issues – and more now that the parties are not constrained by the need to work together.

Partly, this illustrates the seriousness of the political and community divide that politics must seek to bridge. But the reflection of that divide in the structure of politics in Northern Ireland also means that no alternative government is on offer during elections, so misconduct in government is harder for the electorate to sanction. If the great priority of most electors is to support their community’s champion against the other side, the detail of the champion’s conduct in government gets lost. Continue reading