Democracy and the Right to Know: 10 Years of Freedom of Information in Ireland
University of Limerick Politics and Public Administration Working Paper No. 4
28 Pages Posted: 25 Sep 2010
Date Written: 2009
Freedom of information (FOI) is important because it aims to makes government open, transparent and accountable. The legislation is based on the premise that people have the right of access to public documents, save for certain exemptions (Doyle, 1997: 68). The philosophy behind such legislation is that citizens have a ‘right to know’ (Wraith, 1977: 2) how and why decisions are made by government in their name. In that context it is arguable that FOI legislation also has the potential to lead to more accountable government, less corruption and better democratic outcomes for states. Those noble aims were not, it can be argued, foremost in the minds of the founding fathers of the Irish State. Instead the State’s colonial heritage and violent birth contributed to a highly secretive and centralised bureaucracy and government. Successive governments since then have sought to keep the State’s secrets. Exposés of corruption, external influences and cultural change finally lead to Ireland’s first Freedom of Information Act in 1997, and for the first time it allowed citizens a ‘right to know.’ In 2003 significant amendments were introduced in that legislation, which removed a number of key release provisions and introduced fees for requests leaving the principle of the legislation - albeit in a narrower form - still in place. This paper firstly sets out the background to the development of open and accountable government in Ireland, and secondly examines elite attitudes to the introduction, operation and amendment of FOI legislation in the State between 1998 and 2008. It does this by distilling the proceedings of an expert focus group convened to discuss the Act and its legacy.
Keywords: Freedom of Information, Ireland, Government, Public Service, Democracy
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