So often the bridesmaid but never the bride, the Freedom of Information Act finally got its day in the Irish media limelight in early November of 2014 following the publication of the infamous letter sent in 2010 by the European Central Bank to the then Irish Finance Minister, the late Brian Lenihan.
As members of the public digested the significance of this historic document, they could be forgiven for overlooking the tireless work that went in over a three-year period to obtain it and release it out into the public domain.
Indeed, while the majority of the national news publications/broadcasters carried the story, all of them are indebted to the tireless and determined work of independent Irish journalist Gavin Sheridan, whose individual campaign to take on the establishment was finally rewarded.
Sheridan’s preferred methodology when it comes to reporting is to use an asset that fellow journalists and many other members of the Irish public often neglect: the Freedom of Information Act.
For a system that simply involves writing a request to the necessary entity (for free following the abolition of the €15 fee), the culture of obtaining data using the Freedom of Information Act in Ireland is unquestionably under-used.
Many are deterred by the bureaucratic nature of the application process and the sheer length of time it takes to retrieve the desired information. However, for those journalists who stick to their initial objective, a potential treasure trove of newspaper articles and broadcast packages is waiting at the end of it all.
The latest version of the Freedom of Information Act in Ireland came into law in October 2014. Governments past and present have had differing opinions on the Act, but no-one can deny its importance in a transparent democracy like the one we wake up to every day.
The ratification of the Aarhus Convention by our government in 2012 and the subsequent passing of the Access to Information on the Environment Regulations mean that there are now in fact two gateways into the process of legitimately asking for information to be made public knowledge in Ireland.
Although there is a broad and quite substantial list of public bodies covered by the Act, it’s often the one big omission from the list that garners the most attention. Ireland is one of a few countries that does not have direct access to documents relating to its police force, in our case An Garda Síochána.
Understandably, many of the documents are to do with confidential information or issues pertaining to national security, but the recent GSOC scandals and the findings outlined in the Garda Inspectorate Report highlight the urgent need for an updated checks and balances system.
So rather than holding out for a whistleblower or waiting to follow-up on another publication’s scoop, journalists should be availing of a service that is perfectly constitutional. Investigative or breaking news stories relating to the proposed new children’s hospital, the TV licence fee or to data relating to third-level institutions and their expenses could all be sitting in governmental filing cabinets. The powers of the FOI Act are in our hands.