Beyond Cycling / Comment & Analysis: The Green Party has always been strong on transparency but — sadly — the Department of Transport under Minister Eamon Ryan doesn’t seem to reflect this. To be fair, it was similar with Shane Ross — he was a champion for transparency as a journalist but it didn’t quite translate as a Minister.
In February, Labour TD Seán Sherlock and Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín looked for the review. Ryan said: “After the necessary approvals have been secured on both sides of the border, including by the Government, my Department will publish the report.”
This approach is not compatible with environmental law. The Department knows it because they said as much in a later reply (see below).
Transparency also cannot just mean you release documents when it suits you.
There’s also no reason to delay the release of a draft because of the Northern Ireland Executive not being up and running. Such an excuse — which the Department in fairness has not publically stated directly — is also not compatible with environmental law.
But more worrying, the Department is telling different stories to me in response to an Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) request vs what they are saying to Fine Gael TD Fergus O’Dowd this month in a parliamentary response:
The EU law that backs the AIE process, does not allow for non-active drafts of documents to be withheld. The department didn’t use that as an excuse directly maybe because my request had preempted it.
Instead, they relied on the nonsense that it “is now subject to a deliberative process”.
They however told Deputy O’Dowd that “a draft of the Review will need to be published for public consultation under the relevant environmental regulations before it can be formally finalised and approved” and that’s expected “during Q2.”
These aren’t compatible statements.
And what deliberative process is even being referred to? The response to me seems to reply it is the Cabinet approval of the draft or maybe even the final document. If it is the draft, how does that make any sense if that draft is going to public consultation first? Is Cabinet time really being wasted on approving the start of a public consultation process?
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If the final document is being referred to, I didn’t request the final report, and the draft will be published first.
But there is a change within the response — the February response wasn’t compatible with EU law, while this month the Department admits that “a draft of the Review will need to be published for public consultation under the relevant environmental regulations.”
In rejecting AIE requests, the Department also did not outline reasons why releasing the report would harm the deliberative process, Courts have said that just stating something without explanation is not sufficient. It’s just referring to a line, it’s not explaining the reasoning.
Of course, if Departments were truly forced to explain their rejection of AIE or FOI requests, the number of rejections would decrease.
In reality, there’s a stronger chance that releasing the report will aid rather than harm the process. A draft is a draft, you don’t have to wait for the final to publish it. Governments and Departments need to stop treating transparency as a bad thing.
Both myself and Rail Users Ireland, a campaign group, separately requested internal reviews of the Department’s denial of AIE requests. The Department hasn’t even replied to us… if the Department is overloaded, it could just release the document as requested.
Of course, this level of thing is not something Eamon Ryan is likely to have seen, but — if he’s interested in transparency — he needs to tell his civil servants and maybe also his advisors to change their ways.