Freedom of information (FOI) is important because it aims to makes government open, transparent and accountable. FOI legislation is based on the premise that people have the right of access to public documents, save for certain exemptions. The philosophy behind such legislation is that citizens have a ‘right to know’ how and why decisions are made by government in their name. In that context it could be argued that FOI legislation also has the potential to lead to more accountable government, less corruption and better democratic outcomes for states. This book traces Ireland’s experience of FOI legislation, from the first FOI Act in 1997, to the amendments that significantly constrained its provisions in 2003, to the proposed new revisions that will come into operation in 2013. Following from that, it looks at the operation and use of FOI from a series of perspectives: from a governmental perspective, taking views from public officials and politicians, in government and in opposition; from a state perspective, looking at the legal balancing act between keeping secrets and keeping government accountable; from a journalist perspective on the use and misuse of FOI; and from a citizen’s perspective, using FOI to develop active citizenship and engagement. Finally, taking all of these views into account, the book assesses the extent to which FOI has contributed to, and may continue to contribute to, political reform.
Why do governments pass freedom of information laws? The symbolic power and force surrounding FOI makes it appealing as an electoral promise but hard to disengage from once in power. However, behind closed doors compromises and manoeuvres ensure that bold policies are seriously weakened before they reach the statute book. The politics of freedom of information examines how Tony Blair's government proposed a radical FOI law only to back down in fear of what it would do. But FOI survived, in part due to the government's reluctance to be seen to reject a law that spoke of 'freedom', 'information' and 'rights'. After comparing the British experience with the difficult development of FOI in Australia, India and the United States – and the rather different cases of Ireland and New Zealand – the book concludes by looking at how the disruptive, dynamic and democratic effects of FOI laws continue to cause controversy once in operation.
Freedomofinformation and policing:
still a very secret service
Let the people know the facts and the country will be safe.
US President Abraham Lincoln, 1861
Every country has its secrets. They are as inevitable and essential as taxes and
banks. The primary duty of every state is to provide protection for its people
and itself. This includes the provision of law enforcement and defence forces.
It would be unrealistic to expect any country to reveal many of the secrets it
has gathered as part of such work. While that is a
Freedomofinformation and national
security: where’s the harm in that?
National security and freedomofinformation are not natural bedfellows.
Sometimes, undemocratic actions are thought necessary to protect the democracy on which the authority of the State is based: surveillance, stop and search
policing and other security measures can present real challenges to democratic
governance. Furthermore, the release of information may itself undermine the
authority of the State. National security concerns for legitimate secrecy have
International trends in freedomofinformation
The historical starting point for discussing freedomofinformation in relation to
modern democratic states is in Sweden in 1766. During a period of parliamentary rule, a new government passed an access to official information law. This
law has been interpreted as an act of realpolitik because it simply permitted the
new government to access the documents of the previous incumbents. Yet, this
explanation is incomplete as the Freedom of the Press and the Right of Access
to Public Records
Reflections on freedomofinformation:
past, present and future
Eithne FitzGerald, John Carroll and Peter Tyndall
In this chapter we bring together a variety of expertise on Ireland’s experience
with freedomofinformation. First, Eithne FitzGerald, the original FreedomofInformation (FOI) Act’s ministerial sponsor and champion, explains what was
intended and hoped for when the legislation was first introduced, and gives
a critical reflection as to what was achieved. Second, John Carroll, a political
adviser and public policy official, details
Freedomofinformation and the media:
a case of delay, deny, defeat?
In 1997 Irish journalism emerged from a period dominated by violence in
Northern Ireland to find a new status in exposing wrongdoing in public life. As
it took on this task it was given a powerful new tool, the FreedomofInformation
(FOI) Act. Yet without instructions or clarity on how it was to be interpreted and
used, in its first fifteen years it fell victim to inconsistencies and delays. In June
2014 the reporters, whose frustrations festered, were given fresh
FOI: hard to resist and hard to escape
FreedomofInformation (FOI) laws are difficult to resist in opposition but hard to
escape from once in power. A commitment to an FOI law sends out strong messages of radicalism, change and empowerment that new governments find difficult
to resist. However, when politicians regret their promises, as they often quickly do,
the same symbolism makes the reforms difficult to escape from.
To make the picture more complex, FOI laws bring little external advantage and
generate internal unhappiness. One of the central paradoxes
Maura Adshead and Tom Felle
Freedomofinformation (FOI) is important because it aims to makes government open, transparent and accountable. FOI legislation is based on the premise that people have the right of access to public documents, save for certain
exemptions. The philosophy behind such legislation is that citizens have a ‘right
to know’ how and why decisions are made by government in their name. In this
respect, it is often argued that FOI legislation also has the potential to lead to
more accountable government, less corruption and better
Two steps forward and one step back:
political culture and FOI
Introduction: Irish FOI provisions at a glance
Following the Act’s design by Minister Eithne FitzGerald in the coalition
‘Rainbow Government’ of December 1994 to June 1997, the FreedomofInformation (FOI) Act became effective on 21 April 1998 under the subsequent
Fianna Fáil–Progressive Democrat coalition government. The Act stipulates
that, subject to eleven specified exceptions, ‘every person has a right to and
shall, on request therefore, be offered access to any record held by a