Open Letter to TDs and Senators

Posted on behalf of Donal O’Brolcáin
Open Letter to TDs and Senators

“…In 1766, when a new young radical government came to power convinced that only transparency could deal with the corruption that was looting the Swedish state and society a Freedom of Information Act was passed… ”

A Cháirde,
I write to ask you to mark the first six months of this Oireachtas by personally putting down a Bill to immediately repeal the 2003 Freedom of Information Act (FoI) which modified the original act of 1997. The older act would then become effective with all its original power, as one of the checks and balances we need in our way of governing ourselves.

This simple action would fulfil an objective set out in the Programme for Government: “…we will legislate to restore the Freedom of Information Act to what it was before it was undermined by the outgoing Government …”

The government can hardly disagree with this straightforward reform. Five members of the current Cabinet were also members of the Cabinet which brought in the 1997 FoI Act as a response to institutional corruption of the 1980’s. In addition, another four members of the current Cabinet were Ministers of State in that 1997 government. The current Ceann Comhairle was also a member of the 1997 Cabinet.

Arguments in favour of repealing the 2003 FoI Act were well set out, by the then Opposition speakers, in Oireachtas debates in 2003 .

The Government will no doubt argue that it is preparing a more comprehensive measure. But this could be enacted later – after passing a simple law that requires virtually no effort of drafting or Dáil time. Because of the 1997 Act and the debates in 2003, the work has already been done. Repealing the 2003 Act is a “do-minimum” way of enhancing reform. Delay is the deadliest form of denial.

Many of you are new to the Oireachtas. At the start of your second 6 months in Leinster House, why not hit the ground running by taking this step in response to the desire for political and institutional reform that emerged during the General Election campaign?

Is mise

Donal O’Brolcáin
PS. During the past 15 years, I have written about Freedom of Information
http://www.thepost.ie/archives/2003/0316/a-basic-right-for-citizens-182315047.html
https://politicalreform.ie/2010/06/21/freedom-of-information-and-corruption/
• see p.88 of the Dublin City Business Association 10 point manifesto Towards a Second Republic (February 2011) here http://www.dcba.ie/static/doclib/Towards_a_Second_Republic.pdf
• De Buitleir, D., Roden, J., & O’Brolchain, D.,(1998) Institutional Reform in Social Policy in Ireland (eds. S. Healy and B. Reynolds) pp.371-385. Dublin: Oaktree Press. Available here
http://193.120.95.144/politics/Donal%20O%27Brolchain/Institutional%20Reform%20%20Social%20Policy%20in%20Ireland%201998.pdf
• Submission to the All Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution Sept 1996 see p.25 http://www.2nd-republic.ie/files/1.pdf

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20 thoughts on “Open Letter to TDs and Senators

  1. Well done, Donal. it’ll be interesting to see what response it will evoke. Complementing this, but in a very low key way, I have been chivvying the economists on Irish Economy to make the public case for increased Oireachtas resources to hold the Government to account:
    http://www.irisheconomy.ie/index.php/2011/09/07/irelands-economists-in-the-world-part-2/#comment-168122

    On another front, the National Consumer Agency in Ireland is going to be folded into the Competition Authority. Its sister body in the UK, Consumer Focus is going to be totally emasculated and folded into a non-statutory body, the Citizens Advice Services. The objective in both jurisdictions is to completely suppress any pro-active, ex ante or effective representation and advocacy of consumers’ interests collectively. But both agencies are effectively proscribed from ‘taking their case to Parliament or to the streets’ as it were. All these bodies are left with is managed institutional asphyxiation.

    And any voices that raise a protest are effortlessly drowned out and ignored.

    It is all getting a bit ridiculous – and, ultimately, dangerous. Conflict in any society or economy is natural, healthy and constructive when there are clear, agreed and binding procedures to resolve these conflicts – with the courts being the final recourse. But, over the last 20 years, every effort has been made to suppress and smother the major conflicts that arise – the conflict between owners/managers and workers, the very necessary conflict there should be between Parliament and Government and now the conflict between final consumers and businesses. Final consumers are disenfranchised, isolated, atomised in the face of large predatory businesses. Consumers require effective representation of their collective interests before the competition authority and, where they are required, sector regulators operating in a quasi-judicial manner – and not captured, as they are at the moment, by the businesses they regulate.

    When all avenues for effective redress are closed down the accepted democratic and institutional procedures fall into disrepute – and some people believe they not option but to operate outside these or to cast them aside.

    Creating the conditions for this is not wise.

  2. I did include two footnotes (which it is not possible to insert in this web-blog format) giving two additional references – for the sake of completeness of the case I made to TDs and Senators

    1) The quote about the origins of Freedom of Information in Sweden is taken from a BBC Radio 4 talk given by Dan Lucas, London correspondent for Dagens Nyheter newspaper on 16 June 2010;
    2) The 2003 discussions on Freedom of Information can be found in the Debates section of the Oireachtas web-site using a search for “Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill 2003”.

  3. Well done – let’s hope some of the new TDs will rise to the challenge as i’ts unlikely any of the old ones will unfortunately.

    Amazing how all of the new TDs and Senators claim the absolute maximum level of expenses and nont one of them, not even those from the so called ‘left’ have the honesty to public receipts to verifiy their expenses are legitimate.

    But just whinging about the need for reform doesn’t get reform and contacting reps again and again and again is the only way to get any movement on the issue.

  4. Great idea! Hopefully our Oireachtas members will take some notice of your letter. Perhaps some comprehensive new FoI measures are indeed in the offing sometime during this Dáil term. But simply restoring previous non-watered-down FoI provisions would be an excellent interim measure. There’s really no excuse for them not to! As argued in the post above, the legal drafting involved would be absolutely trivial. This would even reflect very favourably on some existing government members who would have had a hand in the previous legislation. Hopefully this suggestion will be taken on board. This’ll be a good indication of where exactly political reform comes in the current government’s list of priorities.

  5. For your information, I did email the letter directly to all TDs and Senators prior to asking the Editors of this site to publish it here.

  6. @Desmond and Matt
    That could be tedious – for all – starting with yours truly! After all, there are 226 TDs and Senators.

    I am not convinced that this is the forum for a blow-by-blow account of the responses. Let me think about some sensible way of meeting your request.

    By posting it here, I hope that others would also take up the issue – in their own ways eg. spreading the word among friends/acquaintances in addition to getting in touch with TDs/Senators asking them to do as I have suggested.

  7. It will indeed be interesting to see what response, if any, will emerge. I have no evidence, but I would be surprised if nowadays many people were not using e-mail to make a pitch on some issue or other to all members of the two Houses of the Oireachtas. And I would also be surprised if the major factions had not developed a ‘policy’ on the approach to be applied in reponse to these communications. I suspect the Whips exercise control to prevent any renegade responses by individual TDs or Senators that could trigger further embarrassment.

    Donal’s letter may rock them back on their heels a bit, because it addresses them individually and collectively as the members of the primary democratic institution in the state (from which flows all the authority of the people that has been delegated to them) and it challenges them to exercise this authority in the interests of all citizens.

    It’s impossible to predict how the independent TDs will respond (and the Taoiseach’s XI will probaby keep their heads down), but I would expect a centralised co-ordinated response from the two governing faction full of pious intentions, flannel and a commitment to address this important issue “in the round” and “in due course”.

    The other opposition factions will examine the issue to see if they can get some political mileage out of it, but they too are equally averse to FoI – irrespective of whatever fomulaic good intentions they might spout..

    Nevertheless this is an important initiative as it seeks to engage directly with all Members of the Oireachtas – something I have long been advocating.

    How they respond will be a measure of their democratic credentials, but they will fiercely resent being put to the test in this way.

    • This makes me glad that the Ballot of today and yesterday by the INO for ICTU’s plneand day of industrial action/strike on 30th March if the govt. doesn’t get back into talks with ICTU on their 10-point plan will be an overwhelmingly YES vote. Unless I am mistaken, and I doubt I am. There is real anger about this pay cut and it is strengthening resolve among the public sector workers like nurses to not be walked over any more. The arrogance of such a hike at the same time that we are all facing cuts through pension levy increases is immoral. There is no collective conscience in government, they are not even like Gerry Ryan who claims (laughably) to have done the soul-searching and taken the hit of a self-imposed (more like RTE-imposed)10% cut. Will the FFers refuse this increase? At the same time they will probably look to freezing increments as part of their cost-cutting clawback in the HSE. At least today Drumm admitted there would be an impact on patient services. It looks like the basic home help type services could be vulnerable – not the place to start as this is one service that is cost-effective in keeping people out of the acute hospital system.

  8. Its somewhat tedious. A hardcopy letter (not a photocopy) with your ‘wet’ signature is the way to go. Recruit two others, and impress on them the necessity of recruiting two others, etc. It may work, but you have to follow up on everything, daily! As I said, its tedious, but persistence is mandatory.

    Keep away from e-mails, other than for mundane, routine stuff.

    If this fails, go to any ‘clinics’ in your constituencey.

    I did try to interest my local TDs in the emerging debt/negative equity/ mortgage default predicament – three years ago (Gilmore was one). Outcome: …………………. (This space is intentionally blank).

    Brian

  9. @Brian
    The tedium I intended to refer to was in letting readers of this forum know of the responses.
    Having been involved in some campaigns – on a non-party basis – I have some experience of the effort needed.
    Now that you have raised it, let me me just say that this letter arose from going to a clinic earlier in the summer and asking one of my local TDs about the Govt plans for FoI. In fairness, I got a written response recently. Based on that, I decided that a direct appeal to all legislators (except the President) was an appropriate step. Email makes that easy, given that there are restrictions on how many letters you can actually hand deliver to Leinster House!!!

  10. Pardon my bluntness, but I fail to see how this issue, as described above, can interest public opinion (or public opinion as voiced by the popular media).

    While it might be of interest to political correspondents, journalists and ‘anoraks’, there is nothing here which addresses the most fundamental point: what exactly is the difference between the two acts and why should I care about it?

    (NB a good start in this regard would be to point out a number of instances, highlighted by journalists for example, of important requests/stories which are frustrated by the 2003 Act but which wouldn’t have been by the 1997).

    I am not suggesting that this is not an important issue; rather, it needs to be presented somewhat differently if a significant number of people are to get any way aroused by it.

    In that vein, forgive me if I failed to stifle a chuckle at the implicit comparison of the current Government to the 18th century Swedish ‘young radicals’!

    • Glad you found one aspect of the “implicit comparison” amusing and that you have not questioned the aptness of another ie. the looting

      This Government and TDs/Senators are “young” in terms of experience.

      Only one-third of the existing government have held Cabinet positions before. In addition, as far as I can make out half the members of the Oireachtas (ignoring the President) are new to Leinster House.

      Such inexperience does not make necessarily make for radicalism.

      Hence, I did not ask the TDs and Senators to do anything radical. Perhaps it is radical to expect our legislative assembly to do one of the things that they said they would do in the programme for Government. Note that this commitment is in the programme for Government – not the pre-election manifestos. This programme is supported by the vast majority of members of the Oireachtas.

      So we have a new Government procrastinating/ prevaricating/doing nothing about carrying out something they said they would do. This is a poor start. If they continue thus (on this and other issues), they too will find that the electorate will turn on them – as both Government parties know from experience since the last time they were in power.

      What more evidence does one need to persuade our politicians to do something that the vast majority of them are committed to – in so far as they adhere to the Programme for Government?

      Are you seriously suggesting that those in Leinster House are incapable of recognising commitments made – – voluntarily?
      If that is so, it is not at all clear that any other presentation would make any difference.

      IMO, governance is more than acting only “if a significant number of people are aroused” by an issue.

      Hence my presentation of the case – simply and directly -for the repeal of the 2003 FoI Act.

      All I seek is quiet competence in government – not grand gestures.

      So let me ask you a question. Why should there any Government secrecy whatsoever?

      Article 6 of our 1937 Constitution makes it clear that we own the power of the state. We delegate that power – through elections – to successively smaller groups. This delegation is the only basis for legitimate action by Government, Civil Service, State bodies, local government….

      I suggest that as citizens (not simply journalists) in a republic, we need to have the means to limit the scope for excess by the powerful – be they elected or appointed, public or private. FoI is a means of caring for ourselves, by being able to check what is being done or not done in our names – who wants it done/not done? Why it is to be done/notdone? How it is to be done? When it is to be done?

      FoI is simply one means of trying to ensure accountability and even-handed public administration (On that, I gather that only about 30 per cent of FoI requests come from journalists)

      If you really want to know the differences between the 1997 and 2003 FoI Acts, I suggest that you

      1) Ask Eamonn Gilmore to explain comment three years ago –
      “I don’t think it is appropriate partly because some of the changes made back in 1997, in the way we manage public life in this State, were abruptly dismantled by an amendment Act in 2003. That amendment Act, in my view, did fundamental damage to the way in which the FOI regime ought to operate. The legislation has, as a result, been handicapped and it no longer functions as effectively as it should.”
      http://www.oic.gov.ie/en/Reference/10thAnniversaryConference15May2008-FreedomofInformationTheFirstDecade/Name,8419,en.htm

      2) check out other references on the the website of the Information Commissioner
      http://www.oic.gov.ie/en/

      3) the Oireachtas Debates website using the search term “Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill 2003”
      http://search.gov.ie/sites/debates.oireachtas.ie/?q=Freedom+of+Information+%28amendment%29+Bill+2003&x=25&y=5

  11. @CMcM: ” … it needs to be presented somewhat differently if a significant number of people are to get any way aroused by it.”

    Yep! And herein lies the conundrum. A vital democratic issue is often only appreciated by a few who have the time and energy to devote to it. The remainder? I guess we have our lives to live and families to take care of, not to mention ‘The Day Job’.

    One neglects the maintainence of the braking system of their car – at their (and other folk’s) peril. So it is with democracy. The FoI and an unfettered Ombudsman are the brakes we need to keep our legislators and bureaucrats on the ‘straight and narrow’. Very, very hard to interest folk in this – until it is too late, and the boyoes have engineered a real calamity – such as now!

    We need to be able to confirm that the ignorant, arrogant, incompetent, sychophantic and amoral behaviour that brought us to this place, cannot continue – and it actually is. If we are shut-out, we cannot know. Hence, we cannot prevent it.

    Half-time Score at the Leinster Stadium:
    Vested Interest Athletic1: Sheeple United 0.

    Brian.

  12. @Brian W,

    Thank you. Ciarán McMahon makes some valid points, but I think you’ve addressed them well. I’m sure Donal would be the first to admit his initiative is not perfect – and that it would be wonderful to whip up a groundswell of popular support, but it is worthy of support. As I’ve indicated previously, it sets a very simple and direct test of the democratic credentials of all Members of the Oireachtas (with the exception of the Presdient). How they respond will tell us all we need to know.

  13. @Brian W,

    Thank you. Ciarán McMahon makes some valid points, but I think you’ve addressed them well. I’m sure Donal would be the first to admit his initiative is not perfect – and that it would be wonderful to whip up a groundswell of popular support, but it is worthy of support. As I’ve indicated previously, it sets a very simple and direct test of the democratic credentials of all Members of the Oireachtas (with the exception of the President). How they respond will tell us all we need to know.

  14. Thanks for the replies above. It’s a sad reality of politics that the control of knowledge and information is essential to political power, so it is unlikely that any government will relinquish any of it easily. I can safely say that the parliamentarians who support the motion will be of the young and radical variety like the Swedes of old, but who we, despite all this talk of seismic shifts, have quite few of in the Oireachtas.

    The only way that any significant number of the Government parties will support it is, obviously, if they feel their seats depend on it. In that regard, a more serious campaign is warranted. Let Donal see what sort of response he gets to his letter – I suspect it will be at best tepid – and then let him and a few others try something more radical – targeted FOI requests to each TD and Senator’s office perhaps? Then judge their responses based on both the 1997 and 2003 acts. A neat little press release of the collated results and analysis and then you might have media take notice…

    • @Ciarán Mc Mahon,

      I can see where you’re going with this, but the problem is that the media are part of the problem – and this limits (indeed, negates) their ability to be part of the solution. The media have, along ago given up on the ability of the Oireachtas to hold government to account and self-selected member of the media see themselves, in some situations, as the ‘real opposition’. But because government and the government machine monopolise all the policy resources, analysis and information flows there is a symbiotic relationship between the media and the government machine. The media need the government machine for a steady flow of press releases that can be inserted with minimal comment and editing. (Given the constraints on journalism resources this avoids the need for any serious investogation or analysis.)

      But the government machine needs compliant media types to disseminate its spin; ad, in exchange the media get some limited access to the innards of the government machine. The media also reckons that most people are too dumb – or have too short attention spans – to take a serious interest in politics so they try to up the entertainment content of its ‘reporting’. So it has to sex up various hints of internal debates and the usual low level acrimony in politics as dramatic attacks, splits and rows. But this has to be managed to avoid killing any privileged access they may have behind the scenes.

      I’m sure you’re well aware of all of this, but it makes it highly unlikely that the media would be a useful ally in seeking to chivvy members of the Oireachtas to take their responsibilities more seriously. The status quo is quite remunerative and comfortable for the media. They have the access and influence they desire. Why would they seek to empower the Oireachtas – a potential competitor in this game? In a properly functioning democracy one would expect the media to relish the possibility of reporting on a vigorous parliament that scrutinised government effectively and held it to account. But we don’t have a properly functioning democracy and it’s very difficult to explain the concept of a Bank Holiday to a pig.

  15. `sir
    i can understand the cabinet having meetings in private and removed from the press but when the various departments other then the army and the gardai in their duty to the security of the state refuse to let the people know the truth of the workings of their departments to me it is but a way of controll and regulating the wrongs of their ways without due regard to democracy and the people in short a way of cover up
    harry price kildare

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