Stormont: Request for minutes of ministerial sub-group was refused

First and Deputy First Ministers, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness.
First and Deputy First Ministers, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness.

A request for the minutes of the first, and to date, only meeting of the Stormont Ministerial Sub Committee was refused it can be revealed.

It has emerged that the grouping set up in January with the mooted purpose of ‘rebalancing the regional economy’, has met just once since it’s inception and there are currently no dates scheduled for the next meeting.

A Freedom of Information request, part of which asked for the minutes of that meeting, which took place in March at Stormont was refused by the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM).

In response to a request in May for ‘minutes or meeting notes of the committee since it’s inception’ OFMDFM responded by citing Section 35 of the Freedom of Information Act and said the requested information was exempt from being released because “we have had to balance the public interest in withholding this information against the public interest in disclosing it.”

The reasons for the refusal of the request were: “The established budgetary procedure recognises the importance of public engagement by providing for a process of public consultation following the collective agreement of the Executive. However, prior to such an agreement, it is essential that OFMDFM is afforded to effectively negotiate and debate its options and priorities with Department of Finance and Personnel.

“The Department must be able to undertake a full consideration of all the options-this requires a private space in which to carry out rigorous and candid risk assessment of scenario planning. In this context, premature disclosure of the subject, quantum and prioritisation of OFMDFM’s budget bids may close off discussion and the development of better options and undermine the identification risks. An early release would therefore deny the Department the free space for effective debate and negotiation wgich would not be in the public interest.

“The release of this information could also influence the views of external stakeholders in advance of the publication of the Executive’s draft budget and present a case for departmental priority out of context from the overall priorities for and resources available to the Northern Ireland administration.”

Other reasons for refusing the information given were that it would go against the principle of collective decision making involved for the participating Executive ministers and that it was not in the public interest to disclose such information whilst ministers were still communicating on the formulation of OFMDFMs departmental budget.

At the set up of the ministerial sub-group, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said initial focus would be on Derry and the North West and would tackle issues such as jobs, the A5 and A6, the expansion of Magee, the One Plan and Fort George.

An innagural meeting was attended by both the First and Deputy First Minister, Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster, Environment Minister Mark H Durkan, Employment and Learning Minister Stephen farry and Chief Executive of Invest NI, Alastair Hamilton.

In the meeting held on March 5 at Stormont Castle, Mark H Durkan and Arlene Foster were not there.

Mark H Durkan said: “I didn’t get to the meeting in March because I had an extremely important engagement. I believe a group like this is extremely important and I believe we should be determined to get things working. I wrote to the first and deputy first ministers in June to ask about a date for another meeting. I still haven’t got a reply.”

Sinn Fein’s Raymond McCartney said: “We are dealing with decades of underdevelopment. The group should be meeting when the Assembly reconvenes in September. I don’t know what date that will be.

“Ministers meet with their officials on a constant daily basis. In between times ministers are assuring they are doing their jobs.

“You can see the intention of the sub-group with key decisions around Ballykelly and the teaching block at Magee.

“This sub-group absolutely has a future.”

A spokesperson for OFMDFM said: Progress will not and cannot be measured by the number of meetings. The group will continue to work collaboratively regardless of departmental boundaries to drive forward economic prosperity for all in the north west.”