That letter the Culture Minister is keeping under wraps

Culture minister Car�l N� Chuil�n.
Culture minister Car�l N� Chuil�n.

I see that the Department of Culture has turned down a Freedom of Information (FoI) request from our sister ‘paper the Sentinel for sight of a letter to Culture Minister Caral O Chuilin from council chief executive Sharon O’Connor.

This would appear to be the letter dated May 15th, mentioned here in June, in which Ms. O’Connor complained in strong if not strident terms about the approach of a number of others involved in organisation of City of Culture. At a meeting in her office in Stormont, the Minister gave Ms. O’Connor and her complaints short shrift.

But the Ministry now says that the letter between two public servants relating to a publicly-funded event will be kept from the public because its contents “could prove damaging to the effective conduct of public affairs”. Ms. Ni Chuilin has taken this wording directly from Section 36 of the British Justice Ministry’s guidance on exemptions from the provisions of the FoI Act. Possible exemptions cited include material deemed “prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs.” However, the section goes on to say that “even where likely prejudice can be demonstrated, it is still necessary to consider whether…the public interest in withholding the information outweighs the public interest in disclosure.” So the fact that disclosure might compromise a public institution or official is not in itself enough to warrant refusal to release the information. This raises the question of what it is about Ms. O’Connor’s letter which, in the mind of the Minister, trumps the public’s right to know.

And what has happened to all those assurances from Ms. Ni Chuilin’s party and others that we are in a new era of transparency and accountability? Could it be that keeping “sensitive” matters out of sight of taxpayers, ratepayers and citizens generally becomes second nature after a year or two in office?

It is to be hoped there will be an appeal against Ms. Ni Chuilin’s decision. As things stand, we’ll have to find out the truth by other means.

More next week on aspects of City of Culture and its costs that somebody doesn’t want you to know.

In the end, all will be revealed. If I were involved in some of these matters, I’d come clean now.