How could political expenses be classified as “private papers” when the Minister responsible said it should not apply to them?

The most frustrating aspect of the entire saga of how political expenses came to be classified as “private papers” has been the fact that this simply should not have happened.

The designation of “private papers” had a very specific function, and it was designed to allow TDs and Senators do their job without fear that their communications could be accessed afterwards.

The legislation was introduced by Minister Brendan Howlin and he had a very specific, personal, and justified reason for wanting it.

Many years previously when he had been contacted by whistle-blowers in relation to garda corruption in Co Donegal, extreme pressure was later put on to try and get access to their identity.

And Mr Howlin was completely right that this type of protection was needed for such sensitive types of communication.

However, and this is a big however, he made very clear that this designation of “private papers” was not intended to be a catch-all for all sorts of records.

When myself and Fred Logue made our appeal to the Information Commissioner, we knew that, not least because then Minister Howlin had been clear that “procedural” documents should not be included when the matter came up for debate at committee stage back in 2013.

Procedural Papers

So we thought that this was at the very least grounds for a reconsideration of the matter by the Information Commissioner. Unfortunately, he did not agree (as you can read about here).

Now, it has emerged that the exchange upon which we relied from the Oireachtas website did not even given the full picture. In fact, the conversation had been much more explicit in its conclusion.

The transcript is missing one critical word … the word expenses, as you can see at the following link.

So when the Minister responsible for the legislation was very clearly asked if things like expenses, mileage and attendance records would constitute “private papers”.

His response was crystal clear: “They’re not private papers.”

Yet here we are three years later – and political expenses are being hidden from public view by classifying them as “private papers”?

And you would really have to ask the question how that has been allowed to happen?

In a further extraordinary intervention, the Minister for Public Reform Paschal Donohoe has waded into the debate with a bit of a nothing to see here approach.

He said: “The ruling that they [the Information Commissioner] have made is that they are seen as private papers.”

But no, that is not the ruling the Information Commissioner made.

That was the ruling the Houses of the Oireachtas made, and the Information Commissioner felt he could not disagree with it.

It is only the politicians who want to keep these papers private.

The Information Commissioner has already made clear he believes that political expenses should be made public.

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