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Editors: Maura Adshead and Tom Felle

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.

How and why governments pass laws that threaten their power
Author: Ben Worthy

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.

Still a very secret service
Richard Dowling

4 Freedom of information and policing: still a very secret service Richard Dowling Let the people know the facts and the country will be safe. US President Abraham Lincoln, 1861 Introduction 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

in Ireland and the Freedom of Information Act
Where’s the harm in that?
Jennifer Kavanagh

3 Freedom of information and national security: where’s the harm in that? Jennifer Kavanagh Introduction National security and freedom of information 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

in Ireland and the Freedom of Information Act
Nat O’Connor

1 International trends in freedom of information Nat O’Connor Introduction The historical starting point for discussing freedom of information 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

in Ireland and the Freedom of Information Act
Past, present and future
Eithne FitzGerald, John Carroll and Peter Tyndall

8 Reflections on freedom of information: past, present and future Eithne FitzGerald, John Carroll and Peter Tyndall Introduction In this chapter we bring together a variety of expertise on Ireland’s experience with freedom of information. First, Eithne FitzGerald, the original Freedom of Information (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

in Ireland and the Freedom of Information Act
A case of delay, deny, defeat?
Conor Ryan

6 Freedom of information and the media: a case of delay, deny, defeat? Conor Ryan Introduction 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 Freedom of Information (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

in Ireland and the Freedom of Information Act
Ben Worthy

1 FOI: hard to resist and hard to escape Freedom of Information (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

in The politics of freedom of information
Abstract only
Maura Adshead and Tom Felle

Introduction Maura Adshead and Tom Felle 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 this respect, it is often argued that FOI legislation also has the potential to lead to more accountable government, less corruption and better

in Ireland and the Freedom of Information Act
Political culture and FOI
Maura Adshead

2 Two steps forward and one step back: political culture and FOI Maura Adshead 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 Freedom of Information (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

in Ireland and the Freedom of Information Act