REPORT: Freedom of Information in Ireland: Five Years On

22 September 2003

The leading freedom of information expert in Ireland, Maeve McDonagh of University College Cork, reviews the first five years of the Irish law, passed in 1997 and implemented in 1998, and deconstructs the latest amendments, from April 2003, that roll back parts of the law. In addition to a penetrating analysis of the statute, Professor McDonagh provides striking examples of public disclosures resulting from Ireland’s access to government information.

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Freedom of Information in Ireland: Five Years On (308 KB)

Freedom of Information in Ireland: Five Years On
By Maeve McDonagh

The genesis of the Irish Freedom of Information Act can be traced back to the late 1980s, when allegations of improper relationships between politics and business in Ireland began to surface.(Note 1) One of the chief catalysts to the introduction of the legislation was the establishment of the Beef Tribunal Inquiry in 1991 to investigate allegations of irregularities in the export trade for beef and the possible involvement of politicians in such irregularities. Both houses of the Irish parliament passed resolutions to establish the Tribunal as a result of a major Dail (lower house) debate on an ITV World in Action programme broadcast in mid-1991, which added major television exposure to the many calls for investigating the close relationship between the government and a group of companies operating in the meat trade. Specific allegations revealed by the World in Action programme included the abuse by this group of companies of the EU export refunds scheme.

The Beef Tribunal took over three years to complete its work and has so far cost in the order of €26m. (Note 2) The Tribunal’s proceedings showed that greater openness in government could have prevented many of the abuses developing to the extent they had and could also have contributed by obviating the need for a tribunal of inquiry. An oft quoted excerpt from the Tribunal’s proceedings is the Chairman’s (Note 3) remark that

‘if the questions that were asked in the Dail [the Lower House of Parliament] were answered in the way they are answered here, there would be no necessity for this inquiry and an awful lot of time and money would have been saved.’

Access to government information became an important issue in the general election of November 1992. The incoming government promised to ‘consider’ the introduction of freedom of information legislation. (Note 4) The demise of that government in controversial circumstances then fuelled the demand for greater openness in government. The then-Attorney-General, Mr Harry Whelehan, had been appointed by the Government as President of the High Court although his office had been the subject of severe criticism as a result of delays in the extradition to Northern Ireland of a priest who was suspected of child abuse. Among other deficiencies, Mr. Whelehan’s office had failed to release information with regard to the processing of the extradition application. Widespread public comment on the appointment of Mr Whelehan as President of the High Court remarked on the variance with the government’s frequently expressed pledge to deliver openness, accountability and transparency. The refusal of the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) to back down on this appointment ultimately led to his own resignation and to the fall of the government. The manifest of the incoming coalition in December 1994 finally set out a firm commitment to the introduction of freedom of information legislation.

While at one level the introduction of freedom of information legislation in Ireland can be viewed as a response to the demand of the electorate for greater openness, it also formed part of a wider and longer-term programme of public service and Oireachtas (parliamentary) reform. (Note 5) The genesis of these reforms can be traced back to developments in public sector reform internationally particularly in the UK, Canada and New Zealand.

As part of the process of developing the legislative proposal, the sponsoring Minister (Note 6)and a team of senior civil servants undertook a research tour of Australia and New Zealand to study the operation of Freedom of Information legislation in those jurisdictions. The influence of Australian legislation, in particular, is evident in the finished product. There was a delay of some two years between the announcement of the promise to introduce freedom of information legislation and the publication of the bill in December 1996. This delay is partly explained by the complexity of the legislation. Another reason for the Bill’s long gestation was the extensive process of consultation undertaken with government departments, not all of whom would appear to have been wholehearted in their support of the proposals. The opposition of the Department of Justice to the legislation was particularly strong and the legislation bears the marks of its lack of enthusiasm for FOI. Despite comprehensive consultation within the public sector, there was very little debate surrounding the detailed contents of the Bill in the wider public arena. The Freedom of Information Act became law on 21st April 1997 and entered into force on 21st April 1998.

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Freedom of Information in Ireland: Five Years On (308 KB)


1. The Beef Tribunal was established in 1991 to enquire into allegations of improper practices within the beef industry in particular.

2. Some costs issues are still outstanding.

3. Mr Justice Liam Hamilton.

4. Fianna Fail and Labour Programme for a Partnership Government 1993 – 1997, p.16.

5. A programme of public service reform entitled the Strategic Management Initiative commenced in the early 1990s. This led to the introduction of the Public Service Management Act 1997. Other relevant legislation introduced in the 1990s included the Ethics in Public Office Act 1995, the Committee of the Houses of the Oireachtas (Compellability, Privileges and Immunities of Witnesses) Act 1997 and the Electoral Act 1997.

6. Ms Eithne Fitzgerald T.D.

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