Freedom Of Information: First major casualty of the 'right to know' legislation

The Freedom of Information Act has claimed its first ministerial scalp. David Gordon, Investigations Correspondent on the 'Belfast Telegraph', explains how

Dramatic events are coming so fast in Northern Ireland, it's sometimes hard to keep up. But one recent development at Stormont deserves to be recorded as a journalistic landmark.

When the Democratic Unionist Party assembly member Ian Paisley Jnr stood down from his father's department last month, he became the first government minister in the UK to resign because of the Freedom of Information Act (FOI). His resignation has since become part of a bigger story: it undoubtedly helped weaken Ian Paisley senior, who has now set his own departure date as First Minister.

Some day, an enterprising media-studies student will produce an acclaimed PhD thesis on the slow demise of the younger of the two Paisleys. His resignation came after relentless revelations over links to the developer and DUP member Seymour Sweeney. Mr Paisley Jnr, it should be stressed, has firmly denied any wrongdoing.

He did not help himself at the outset of the controversy by appearing to play down his Sweeney connections, telling an interviewer last September: "I know of him, yes". At this point, the businessman was poised to get the go-ahead for a contentious visitor-centre development above the Giant's Causeway, Northern Ireland's only Unesco world heritage site.

FOI disclosures revealed the extent of lobbying by Mr Paisley Jnr in support of this scheme over a number of years. His father had been involved, too – protesting in writing to the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2003 at a grant refusal for Mr Sweeney.

This letter, released last October under FOI, incorrectly claimed the Causeway project had the approval of Unesco itself. When the letter became public, the First Minister reacted with an outburst from the Assembly floor, attacking "wide ranging" FOI requests being "sent in by lazy journalists, who will not do any work". A complaint about his Heritage Lottery Fund letter was made to the Commons Standards Commissioner.

The "cronyism" row over Sweeney proved a headache for another DUP minister, who was poised to issue planning approval for the Causeway centre scheme. She maintained that she had been unaware that the Paisleys had been batting for the businessman. In the end, planning permission was refused.

By this time, it had been revealed – again through FOI requests – that Mr Paisley Jnr had also lobbied in support of a massive government land sale plan, involving Mr Sweeney.

Freedom of Information disclosures did not just come about through journalistic efforts. The hardline Unionist MEP Jim Allister obtained documents showing that Mr Paisley Jnr had lobbied on Sweeney-related projects at the 2006 St Andrews talks that led to the return of the Northern Ireland Assembly the following year. The St Andrews "shopping list" was personally considered by Tony Blair, who was no doubt keen to keep the Paisleys sweet, amid hopes of a power-sharing deal.

The Blair lobbying revelation infuriated other parts of the DUP. The end for Paisley Jnr came through a general FOI request about rental expenses for politicians' constituency offices. It's the kind of enquiry a reporter might submit on a quiet afternoon. But when the draft figures were circulated in the Stormont assembly for checking purposes prior to release, they started alarm bells ringing in the DUP.

That was because the rent received by the two Paisleys for their sizeable joint office was more than three times the amount of the next highest claim. It was then confirmed that Seymour Sweeney had facilitated the mortgage for the purchase of the building, and that the firm owning it was headed by Mr Paisley Jnr's father-in-law.

All within the Assembly rules, but party colleagues had had more than enough of the negative headlines by now. Paisley Junior quit – thanks to "lazy journalists" and that pesky FOI Act.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
News
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
News
people
Voices
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'