Journalist Gavin Sheridan wins major victory over NAMA

Online journalist Gavin Sheridan (my nephew) is to be heartily congratulated for taking on the monolith that is the National Assets Management Agency (NAMA) and winning.

The Information Commissioner has ruled that NAMA is subject to freedom of information requests.

This ground breaking decision has come about after a great deal of technical and forensic legal work by Gavin over many months (See full details on Gavin’s blog, The Story).

NAMA is not subject to freedom of information requests in the normal sense but Gavin discovered a loophole in the Soviet style secrecy laws that prevent Irish citizens from knowing what’s going on in NAMA.

As I have said on many occasions, secrecy is the most powerful weapon of a corrupt state and Ireland is the most secretive and most corrupt state in the Western world.

Gavin’s dedicated work is helping to break down that corrosive secrecy and for that the people of Ireland should be grateful.

I include the Irish Examiner report below.

Irish Examiner

Key ruling may leave NAMA open to inquiry

By Claire O’Sullivan

Thursday, September 15, 2011

GREATER transparency around the workings of the highly secretive NAMA is expected after the Information Commissioner ruled that it is subject to freedom of information requests.
Financial experts believe the breakthrough will also help better predict when the property market will bottom out.

In a landmark ruling, the Information Commissioner has decided the agency should be subject to information requests under environmental freedom of information.

Freedom of Information campaigners also believe the decision could leave Anglo Irish Bank open to inquiry.

The ruling emerged after Gavin Sheridan, a Dublin-based online journalist, sought information on the body via the 2007 freedom to environmental information statutory instrument.

NAMA refused to supply the information, saying the refusal was justified on the grounds that it is not a public authority within the meaning of the 2007 regulations

However, Information Commissioner Emily O’Reilly found that the national property company was not justified in its action and she annulled the original refusal, saying it was a public authority within the meaning of the regulations.

It is expected that NAMA will attempt to appeal this latest review. It has up to eight weeks within which to do so.

Professor of finance at Trinity College, Brian Lucey, said the decision was important, as it should allow taxpayers to see “what business NAMA are doing, who they are doing it with and for how much”.

One of the basic problems with NAMA, he said, is its opaque nature.

“This opacity has hugely hampered the information discovery in property. We need such information discovery if we are to get to the true state of property and property prices.

“Secondly, NAMA’s opacity has been a huge liability on the public as they have pretended that they could not be transparent and efficient. The responsibility to be transparent cannot be dodged by a public body like NAMA.”

FoI needs more scope – O'Reilly

Emily O’Reilly is asking that the scope of the Freedom of Information Act should be widened to include bodies like the Gardai, the Central Bank, the Financial Regulator and the CAO.

Emily O’Reilly also told the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service yesterday that more public bodies, including An Garda Sa­ochana, should be brought under the scope of the Freedom of Information Act (FoI).

She said that while the Minister for Finance had announced that 109 additional bodies were being brought within the legislation, a significant number of others would continue to remain outside its provisions.

Ms O’Reilly said she was concerned that Mr Cowen’s announcement last October “may be seen as some kind of final round-up and that further extensions may not be planned for some time, if at all”.

The Information Commissioner said that Judge Maureen Harding Clark, in her recent report on Lourdes hospital, had recommended that the Department of Health introduce legislation to protect clinical governance records and risk-management clinical incident report forms from the application of the FoI Act.

She said this recommendation was based on the view that unless these documents were protected from the legislation, they were unlikely to be created, and opportunities for learning from mistakes would be lost.

“I find that I cannot agree with this recommendation as I believe the exemptions in the FoI Act are sufficient to protect what is, I agree, a very important public interest,” she said.

Ms O’Reilly said that although 109 additional bodies were due to come under the scope of the Act, she could see no reason for the continued omission from FoI of bodies such as vocational education committees, the Central Applications Office, the State Examinations Committee, the Adoption Board, An Garda Sa­ochana, bodies dealing with asylum applicants, the Central Bank, the Financial Services Authority and the State Claims Agency.

She said that under FoI legislation in Britain, police were covered on the same basis as all other public bodies.

The secretary general (public service management and development) of the Department of Finance, Eddie Sullivan, told the committee that a culture of secrecy was not something that he recognised in the modern Irish public service.

Joan Burton TD noted that Mr.Sullivan must be joking. I am inclined to agree. Secrecy appears endemic to me at least.