This guide is designed to be read by members of the public or journalists looking to dip their toes into the world of Freedom of Information in Ireland.
It is not designed to be an authoritative guide to FOI, a history book, or an academic text – it is simply a useful introduction to the first steps, the language, and the things you need to know before you start.
It deliberately simplifies what are sometimes far more complicated issues.
This is also a work in progress. Any mistakes or errors will be corrected and suggestions on additional material to include are more than welcome at email@example.com.
- If you find this guide useful, you might consider making a small contribution to support me in keeping it up to date and providing additional resources. For more detail – visit this page.
Now, a very quick history lesson!
Freedom of Information has been one of the great democratising forces in Irish society.
Ireland had since independence remained a fiercely secretive state and the introduction of the first FOI Act in 1997 was an attempt (in the famous slogan of the time) at ‘letting the light in’.
The new legislation effectively made all public records public.
But – and there is always a but in Ireland – it came with exemptions, and lots of them.
These exemptions were meant to be, again using the vocabulary of the time, simply yield signs, rather than stop signs.
As Minister Eithne Fitzgerald told the Seanad: “They permit information to be withheld, but do not oblige or require it to be withheld.”
The reality has, as anybody who uses the law will testify, been very different and the exemptions have instead become the road blocks by which requests are often frustrated.
The original FOI Act was gutted in 2003 by the Fianna Fáil government of the day.
Famously, Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy – who introduced the legislation – did not even attend the final debate on it, instead choosing to go to the races at Cheltenham.
There were many damaging changes wrought in the new act but perhaps the most negative was the introduction of a €15 upfront fee for requests.
That might not sound like much and it wasn’t so bad for larger media outlets, who still made use of FOI and could afford to pay the fees.
For others, especially members of the public, freelance reporters, regional journalists and so on – the fee was a significant impediment, particularly for anything more than occasional requests.
Thanks in no small part to a campaign by Gavin Sheridan of Right to Know, those fees were removed when the new Freedom of Information Act was introduced in 2014.
It was the most significant change by far and it is with that new act in mind that this guide is written.
There are three main points to get your head around when it comes to FOI requests:
- Wording of requests is of critical importance.
- The main mistake is asking questions. Public bodies do not have to answer questions.
- FOI in Ireland is about records that already exist – and you figuring out how to identify them.
HOW TO WORD YOUR REQUEST
On multiple government websites, you will see things like FOI forms, instructions on how a request must be phrased, suggestions that they need to be put in the post and so on.
This is all rubbish.
No request needs to say anything more than the following:
Dear Sir/Madam, Under the FOI Act 2014, I am seeking the following:
- Whatever you are looking for goes here. Keep it general if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for. Be quite focused if you do.
I would prefer to receive this information electronically, preferably in its original formatting.
The reason we should ask for records electronically is because the reality is that this is the way they are stored almost all of the time.
It also then makes it far easier for us to search them, share them, and of course is helpful if we plan to upload them later for other people to see (as we should).
Another useful new element of the 2014 FOI Act is that we can now request files in their original formatting.
This is very useful when government departments decide to print out a spreadsheet, then photocopy it, then scan it, and then turn it into a PDF that a computer can now no longer read. And yes, this does still happen.
This means that poorly photocopied scan they sent you of an Excel sheet – tell them you want the original file and they have to oblige.
WHAT BODIES ARE INCLUDED
The vast majority of public bodies are subject to Freedom of Information requests, except those listed here (mainly commercial semi-states).
Many bodies have been brought under the FOI Act since 2014 including the likes of the gardaí, Nama, and many others.
Importantly, any newly created public body now automatically falls under FOI unless it is specifically exempted when created.
If an organisation has only recently been added, it may mean that records are not available as far back into the past as might be the case with others.
For public bodies that have been under the FOI Act since the word go, requests cover the period as far back as the original introduction of the legislation in 1998.
You can use foi.gov.ie to see what bodies are included. There are hundreds, some of which will be very familiar, some not so much.
Some of them get thousands of requests every year, some of them get hardly any at all.
Most public bodies will have a section of their website given over to FOI and an email address to which requests can be sent.
If the internet fails you, then you can always pick up the phone and ask for the contact email.
RIGHTS OF APPEAL
If your request is refused, you have a right of appeal.
The first step is internal review and it costs €30. This is carried out by the same people who made the decision in the first place, except this time by a more senior member of staff.
The experience of requesters would be that success rates can be low here but it all depends on the public body and how bad the original decision was.
The next step is an appeal to the Office of the Information Commissioner and it costs €50.
This second appeal will certainly take months, and in some cases – if contentious legal issues are involved – could take much longer.
There is another separate scenario where internal review and appeal do not cost anything.
This is where a public body fails to answer your request within the twenty working days allowed without giving you any reason.
This is called a deemed refusal and any time you have heard nothing at around the fifth or sixth week of a request, you should at least look for an update.
If you feel you’re not getting anywhere, you can seek an internal review for free.
If the same public body again fails to deal with your request for internal review within the fifteen working days allowed, you can appeal to the Information Commissioner at no cost on the basis that it was a deemed refusal at both stages.
This is a more common experience than you might think and the public bodies who engage in this are listed in the annual report of the Information Commissioner (though nothing is ever done).
WHY DO REQUESTS GET REFUSED?
As mentioned already, Ireland’s Freedom of Information law came with some very large caveats in the form of exemptions.
When you read all of them, you could be forgiven for wondering how anything is ever actually released into the public domain.
They make up Section 28 to 41 of the Act and you can find them here.
People sometimes get frustrated with the FOI process because they look for records that are very obviously exempt.
For instance, the gardaí refuse most requests they get because people repeatedly ask for material relating to operational day to day policing.
Most of the time their refusals are justified because the FOI Act only applies to gardaí where it concerns administrative records relating to human resources, finance, or procurement.
So if you ask for crime information – you won’t get it.
Whether the FOI Act should apply more widely to the gardaí is a separate debate (and yes, of course it should).
The same thing applies to RTÉ, which also benefits from exemptions that don’t apply elsewhere particularly around the news gathering process.
Other public bodies with a special low transparency status include the Data Protection Commission, NAMA, the Attorney General, and the DPP. You can read about these “partially included” agencies here.
There is no great use in complaining about a lack of transparency if you have not at least tried to familiarise yourself with the law.
The main exemptions you will inevitably come across are:
- Commercially sensitive: used widely and often incorrectly.
- Personal information: used widely and sometimes incorrectly.
- Deliberations of FOI bodies: in very simple terms, this means that while an organisation is still making up its mind about something important, records can be exempt. Once the decision is made, it’s usually fair game. Used very widely and very often incorrectly. This is probably the one you will run into most.
- Information obtained in confidence, which requires much more than arbitrarily deciding something is confidential.
- Security, defence, international relations, law enforcement and public safety. Self-explanatory.
- Meetings of the government: basically memos, aide memoires, briefings and so on that were prepared specifically for Cabinet meetings.
If you believe a decision has been made incorrectly, there are a few major resources at your disposal if you want to appeal and plan to rely on previous cases.
The first is the website of the Information Commissioner where you can find previous decisions.
The second is the book Freedom of Information Law by Maeve McDonagh, which you will find in any good library or can buy (although it is €285).
Probably the best option is to look at the guidance notes published by the Information Commissioner; similar less useful notes are made available by the Central Policy Unit of the Department of Public Expenditure.
With all of that out of the way, the trick with Freedom of Information is to be persistent.
As you begin, your success rate for getting useful information will inevitably start low but improve over time.
Try not to get disheartened by it; that is what a lot of people do – so try to be one of the people who sticks with it.
You can only learn about this process by making mistakes. And the cost of making such a mistake is a few minutes of your time and not even the €15 fee there used to be.
THINGS TO BEAR IN MIND
Sometimes information is released under FOI that should not be. So occasionally it can be worth submitting a request that you think might be refused.
At the very least, you might get a schedule of the records that you are being refused access to.
This schedule is a list of the records that are considered relevant to your request. It is considered best practice for public bodies to provide one of these in answering a request. Unfortunately, in practice, many don’t, especially when refusing access to records.
From the schedule, you might be able to build a picture or timeline of what happened or find a few names of people to contact or speak to.
Be aware that the quality of service varies enormously from organisation to organisation.
Requesters report positive experiences with the likes of the Department of Finance, Foreign Affairs, the Oireachtas, the Courts Service, and others.
On the other side, people have had incredibly negative experiences with other public bodies. I won’t shame them here, partly because it won’t help, but mainly because the Information Commissioner does it in his annual report … and it still doesn’t help.
Most government departments will at least do what is required, some much more quickly than others.
There is no real point getting annoyed with the public bodies that fail to deal with requests properly.
Your angry email or phone call is unlikely to rectify the problem so if you do feel passionately about it, consider contacting the minister responsible (the Minister for Public Expenditure & Reform).
KEY THINGS TO REMEMBER
The first five hours of search and retrieval are free.
Try if you can to keep that in mind when framing your requests. Keep them manageable.
Requests for huge amounts of material can either attract large fees or be rejected outright on the basis that they are simply too big and likely to interfere with a public body’s work.
Public bodies are however, obliged to give you an opportunity to refine your request to make it smaller.
Common ways of doing this might be to reduce the amount of time you want to look at.
For example, if your original request is for five years of records, perhaps there’s a three or six month period in those five years that might yield most of the information you need.
Another way of doing this is to confine the searches to the email addresses of a single key person, or a couple of key personnel.
Public bodies are not obliged to create new records for you so avoid asking questions and try to anticipate the actual records that might give you your answer.
Public bodies only have to release records that already exist. Sometimes, they will create a new table, list, or similar for their own convenience but there is no obligation to do so.
An important point here is that if a new record can easily be created from say a database, or a financial management system – they do have to take reasonable steps to provide that under Section 17(4) of the FOI Act.
Here is a very useful decision that outlines how this works in practice.
Freedom of Information requests are not and will never become the be-all and end-all of what these public bodies do.
Try not to bombard them with multiple requests at the same time, be understanding when people look for extensions for valid reasons.
Above all, be willing to talk to the FOI officers, explain to them exactly what it is you are looking for.
It is in both of your interests that each request is as targeted and refined as it can be.
As mentioned already, the single biggest mistake people make is in asking questions.
FOI in Ireland is not about asking questions – we look for the records that actually exist.
To do that, we have to try and understand how departments and public bodies work and how they think.
If we don’t know how they work, do we know somebody who could explain it to us?
If we don’t, try and imagine how people within an organisation communicate? And remember that most large organisations talk to themselves using very similar patterns.
Why and how do they create records? When do they write emails, memos, letters, reports, submissions, god forbid send a fax?
A meeting takes place
What records exist? Are there minutes of the meeting? Were people provided with briefing notes in advance? Was there an agenda?
Did somebody give a PowerPoint presentation? Did somebody jot down handwritten notes? Was there an email chain afterwards to discuss the meeting, agree to the minutes?
A minister makes a decision
Civil servants prepare a memo for their attention. In advance of that, there are emails discussing what should go in that memo. There might be communications with other relevant departments and state bodies looking for their input. Are there representations from politicians, lobby groups, members of the public?
The memo gets written up – the minister either signs off or doesn’t. Perhaps, they look for more information?
An overseas trip
The mistake that people used to make was they would make the requests too general for ‘all costs of such and such a trip’. Many years ago, I asked all government departments about the cost of St Patrick’s Day – helpfully, the Government Press Office came back to say they would collate the material into tables. It had zero impact.
Paradoxically, it is the small details that have the greater impact: copies of the actual invoices, the actual receipts and so on – insist on them.
Look for copies of emails in preparation for the trip, its organisation, anything that happened after the event. Make sure to get copies of the itineraries.
Politicians often complain that journalists are obsessed with expenses and foreign travel. Here’s my response to that.
NOT A PRESS QUERY
So above all, this is not a standard press query (or question).
It is about trying to predict what records exist and getting your hands on them.
Think of the things that interest you and ask yourself how often the real question of why actually ever gets answered?
Every decision that is ever made – or not made – benefits somebody in some way. Who is it?
If Freedom of Information requests can do anything, it is to give us a better understanding of the why in decisions that are made.
Lots of government departments and other public bodies publish a list of the requests that they receive.
If you read them, you can see what is generating useful material and what is not.
If an FOI request worked with one government department, perhaps it might work with others?
Many requests are not made by journalists, and oftentimes useful information – sought by members of the public, legal firms, and so on, never actually sees the real light of the day.
Some example logs can be found below. There are lots more, including the Department of Finance, the Taoiseach’s department, the Central Bank, and so on:
- Department of Foreign Affairs: https://www.dfa.ie/about-us/accountability/how-we-are-accountable/foi-requests/
- Oireachtas: https://www.oireachtas.ie/en/foi/foi-disclosure-log/
- Department of Housing: http://www.housing.gov.ie/search/archived/current/sub-type/foi-log/type/publications
If the public body that you are interested in doesn’t publish these logs – you can submit an FOI request looking for the log.
Alternatively, you can also contact the Information Commissioner and ask for the public body to be given a reminder of this obligation.
We can also seek a re-release of any FOI request that has been previously submitted by journalists or others.
If the public body insist you need to submit a new request, they are incorrect. That material is already in the public domain and should be treated as such.
ADAPTING TO CHANGE
Remember that public bodies are constantly adapting in response to FOI.
There is ample evidence of this. Former minister Pat Rabbitte publicly admitted keeping a parallel diary, while the use of sticky notes that can be removed from files in the event of a request has also been reported.
So public bodies may attempt to hide their tracks, or change the way they do things.
Remember though how difficult it is to do anything without leaving an electronic footprint.
There have been a few cases making clear that work-related messages or email when sent through private accounts are still subject to FOI.
There are a number of cases on this, one where WhatsApp messages have already been released as part an FOI request.
There is also the by now infamous case of the secret emails between former minister Frances Fitzgerald and her PR advisor Terry Prone that were originally said not to exist.
More recently, there was the Katherine Zappone appointment controversy and the deletion of text messages by Minister Simon Coveney.
Keep this in mind in particular if a request you submit yields no records even though a year previously it had yielded lots.
LISTS OF FOI BODIES
A really useful aspect of Freedom of Information in Ireland is being able to submit the same request to multiple public bodies.
People can for instance use this to find out what every local authority spent on compensation claims, or to inquire into exam grading in universities.
I’ve put together these five spreadsheets of FOI contact details for public bodies that might be useful:
- The first list is government departments.
- The next is all thirty one county councils.
- This is a list of contact details for hospitals and health authorities.
- This one covers universities, ITs, and other educational public bodies.
- And lastly, this is a miscellaneous list of some of the more important public bodies in Ireland.
If you find that any of these email addresses no longer work, feel free to contact me and I will update the records accordingly.
If you are an FOI decision maker and would prefer that I include a different more generic address, please let me know and I will make those changes too.
ACCESS TO ENVIRONMENTAL INFORMATION
The main alternative to FOI is through requests under the AIE (Access to Information on the Environment) regulations.
The big advantage of these in the pre-2014 FOI Act world was that they were free. So that advantage is gone now although internal review is still free.
Also famously, the definition of what constituted a public body/authority was much less clear-cut than under FOI especially when it came to the likes of Nama.
Through Right to Know, we tested whether the AIE Regulations can apply to the Office of the President and the Council of State, both of which are exempt under FOI law (we ultimately lost this case).
However, it does certainly apply to commercial semi-states like Coillte, Bórd na Móna, Dublin’s airport authority, and Bus Éireann.
In theory, the definition of environmental information is supposed to be very broad but in the Irish experience it has often been interpreted very narrowly by public bodies.
It does have its advantages, but the appeal process to the Commissioner for Environmental Information is even slower than with FOI.
Requests need only say the following: “Under the AIE Regulations, I am seeking the following …”
AIE is less prescriptive about seeking records and public authorities are supposed to make every effort to help you find what you are looking for.
So what is environmental information?
It’s very wide-ranging and covers a very significant amount of the work of most local authorities, the Department of Housing, the Department of Transport, and the Department of the Environment.
Other bodies who hold significant amounts of environmental information include Irish Water, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland.
There are lots more and every public body (or public authority in AIE) will hold at least some environmental information.
Here’s what’s included:
1/ Any info on the state of elements of the environment: air, atmosphere, water, soil, land, landscape, natural sites, biodiversity, pollution, and so on.
2/ Things that affect the environment: energy, noise, radiation, waste.
3/ Administrative measures that can affect the environment: policies, laws, plans.
4/ Reports on implementation of environmental legislation.
5/ Cost-benefit or other economic analyses of measures.
6/ State of human health and safety: food, buildings, cultural sites.
Some other advantages of AIE include the fact that information relating to climate change and greenhouse gas emissions can sometimes be accessed even where impossible under FOI.
For example, in one case Right to Know was able to access Cabinet Records relating to climate change even though these are only accessible under FOI after five years.
The definition of public authority is much less restrictive than under FOI. Using AIE, Right to Know has been able to access information from for instance the Celtic Roads Group.
Most of the exempt and partially included agencies under FOI are subject to AIE, and this can be used as a work-around to get certain types of records.
SOME USEFUL AIE LINKS
The consolidated AIE Regulations: https://www.ocei.ie/legislation-and-resources/legislation/AIE-Regs-2007-2018-Unofficial-Consolidation.pdf
An important decision on urban renewal to give a flavour of how AIE should be interpreted: https://www.ocei.ie/decisions/mr-d-and-department-of-ho/index.xml
Another decision on a Defence Forces rescue operation off the West Coast where major pollution event was a concern: https://www.ocei.ie/decisions/right-to-know-clg-and-the-7/index.xml
A High Court judgment on environmental information, this time involving climate change records from RTÉ https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/20619989-2020-34-mca-right-to-know-v-cei-rte
A list of AIE offices from Noteworthy and TheJournal.ie: https://www.noteworthy.ie/open-access-aie-5301473-Dec2020/
A sample AIE log from the Department of the Environment: https://www.gov.ie/en/publication/7a9cb-aie-disclosure-log/
WOBBING OR REQUEST FOR EU INFORMATION
Looking for information from the EU Commission and other EU bodies is criminally underused in Ireland and much easier than you would think.
For requests to the EU Commission, follow the link:
For requests to the EU Parliament, this is the link:
For requests to the Council of the European Union, this is the link:
And if you’re unhappy with a decision you get in your request for EU records, then you can always go to the Ombudsman, a powerful office currently headed by Ireland’s Emily O’Reilly.
You can find out more about how to do that here: https://www.ombudsman.europa.eu/en/make-a-complaint
For a list of all the relevant EU bodies, you can find them here:
A quick note to say that if you use the above AsktheEU service, details of your request will be published online as it goes through the process. That may not suit everybody’s needs if for instance they want to keep their research hidden until a story is ready.
Similarly, if you use the WhatDoTheyKnow service for requests in the UK, your request will be posted online as it moves along.
Again, that may not suit everybody. One quick note on FOI requests in the United Kingdom – you are allowed to ask questions.
If you want to make requests in other countries around the world, this incredibly useful page from the Global Investigative Journalism Network will point you in the right direction:
PERSONAL DATA REQUESTS
At Right to Know, we get lots of emails from people asking about seeking personal information.
This is one area we don’t involve ourselves in too much – because obviously we cannot access other people’s personal data and so it does not crop up in our work.
If you are looking for such records, there are really two options.
The first is GDPR – of which you have no doubt heard plenty – and a key benefit is that it applies not just with public bodies, but other private and commercial organisations.
It also applies to all the main state agencies – the HSE, the Department of Employment Affairs, individual hospitals, An Garda, and so on.
Making a request is easy. The first step is to find the point of contact or data protection officer to send your request to.
This person’s email address can normally be found on their website, or with a quick phone call to their offices.
You should say that you are making a request under Article 15 of the GDPR for a copy of any records they hold concerning you. This page from the Data Protection Commissioner is helpful.
One important thing to keep in mind is that you will have to provide evidence of your identity, an important step to safeguard your data.
Lots of people still use FOI to request their own personal information as much out of habit as anything else. There are other reasons as well.
Through FOI, you can access a broader range of records and it is a simple matter of sending a request saying ‘Under the FOI Act, I am seeking the following …’
If a hospital treated you when you are sick; you could access not just your own records but other documents that might tell you about overcrowding there that day.
It can also be useful for things that aren’t really personal information but might feel personal, if say speed bumps were installed on your road.
The same would go for all other environmental issues in your area like air pollution, rubbish, anti-social activity, and so on.
Requests relating to deceased relatives or the vulnerable
A really key advantage of FOI is when accessing records relating to a deceased loved one or a person who is incapacitated.
This might crop up where a person has died in hospital or a nursing home, and you have unanswered questions about what happened.
Equally, it could apply if a person was in permanent care but did not have the capacity to make decisions for themselves.
The Information Commissioner has been strong on this, including in one of his annual reports, where he cited two such cases. You can find them on Page 37 and might find them helpful if making a similar request.
The trickiest part of ‘personal information’ is that records relating to you might be personal to another person too.
The best recent example of this was in the debate over the Mother and Baby Home Commission archive and getting access to those records.
People can be refused access to their own records if another interest, either public or private, also needs to be protected.
These cases can be difficult and there are a whole lot of scenarios where competing rights like this can crop up.
Access to your own data is not guaranteed in all circumstances.
Lots of people would like to know what information is held on them by the gardaí and that can be possible but not say if you are the subject of an ongoing investigation.
Information won’t be released either if it would be likely to identify somebody else e.g. a witness or a garda source.
Just a final note to say that if you are seeking personal information with a plan to take legal action, you should always consult with a solicitor.
If you made it this far, thank you for reading.
If you have any questions or suggestions, let me know.
FURTHER READING ON FOI IN IRELAND AND THE UK:
This section is mainly for students, or those who desperately want to find out more about how FOI operates in Ireland.
There are two books in an Irish context that are really useful.
It’s an excellent read and covers a wide range of topics with chapters written by experts in FOI use like Gavin Sheridan, Conor Ryan, and Richard Dowling.
You can read a chunk of it here.
Co-editor of that book Dr Tom Felle also used to blog on FOI, and his web page still contains several valuable resources.
The second book is Freedom of Information Law by Maeve McDonagh.
By far the most useful part of this book is its analysis of important FOI decisions, which you can use to bolster any appeals that you make.
This article is also worth a read, an analysis of Ireland’s Freedom of Information Act after five years by Maeve McDonagh.
This piece in the Guardian is useful any time you hear somebody telling you that FOI is a waste of precious time and resources.
In fact, it saves the taxpayer significant money, as this article illustrates (based on a list compiled by me).
Another book that is useful but in a UK context is ‘Your Right to Know‘ by Heather Brooke.
Heather Brooke was the person who set the ball rolling on what turned into the Westminster expenses scandal, itself well chronicled in ‘No Expenses Spared‘ by Robert Winnett and Gordon Rayner.
For a more academic perspective, FOI Ten Years On edited by Tom Felle and John Mair is also well worth a look.
My own book Snouts in the Trough tells the story of the resignation of Ceann Comhairle John O’Donoghue following controversy about his overseas travel bills.
It was almost entirely based on records obtained under FOI.
If you have any suggestions on books, articles, or documentaries with a Freedom of Information slant, feel free to let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org
- If you find this guide useful, you might consider making a small contribution to support me in keeping it up to date and providing additional resources. For more details – visit this page.