Noel Dempsey and the “public interest”
Back in July, Minister Noel Dempsey headed off to Derry Airport on board the government’s €7,890 Gulfstream IV so that he could give a talk at a summer school in Donegal.
From there, he was flown to London where he had a secret meeting the following morning at the Irish Embassy.
Mr Dempsey subsequently said he should probably have looked into alternative arrangements, considering his use of the government jet for those two days cost €23,000.
What he would never be drawn on however, was what exactly what he was doing in London, simply saying it involved the possibility of creating jobs in Ireland.
When I sought details of what Mr Dempsey was doing in London under the so-called Freedom of Information Act, all references to the meeting were deleted from the records.
Access to them was refused under a variety of different grounds of the FOI Act, chiefly relating to ongoing government deliberations and the argument that it might indicate a government position.
The Department of Transport – which in my personal experience has a particularly severe approach to Freedom of Information – thus censored the documents in the “public interest”.
Not only did they delete all possiblity of finding out who Mr Dempsey met and what was discussed, they also took it upon themselves to censor details of public servants that had travelled with him.
This is highly unusual. Frequently, government Departments will contact me and ask me if it would be OK to drop names of individual civil servants from the documents they release.
Invariably, I agree with them as I do not see what purpose it serves identifying ordinary public workers who are just going about their day-to-day business.
The Department did not offer that option. In this case, I was particularly interested in finding out who had travelled as it might have given us a hint of what exactly was involved.
The documents, as they were released, are below. What we do know is that Dempsey had to clear the trip with the Department of the Taoiseach, Justice and Foreign Affairs.
He arrived at the Embassy from the Kensington Hotel, had a 90-minute meeting, was collected and headed back to Dublin on the government jet.
The Minister was accompanied by his Private Secretary Veronica Scanlan, who is the decision maker on this Freedom of Information request.
It is nice to know that Ministers can now use the government jet, run up a bill of €23,000 in the process, and then simply refuse to give an explanation of what they were doing.
This, at least in my experience, is an unprecedented situation and I can never recall a trip on board either government jet that was not fully accounted for afterwards.
Have we had a major jobs announcement since Dempsey’s visit that would tally with what he spoke about or did these jobs ever materialise? There must be a way of finding out what he was doing there?
Fortunately, there are other options, all of which will be pursued.
You’ll notice the document numbers jump; the others are all Department of Transport emails, access to which was refused:
The story as written in the Sunday Tribune at the weekend