NIO must explain hunger strike deal secrecy

THE Northern Ireland Office has been ordered to give secret details of the 1981 hunger strike to the Londonderry Sentinel - or to explain why it thinks doing so might damage international relations.

The NIO has delayed making a decision on whether to release the information requested under the Freedom of Information Act since last May - even though it was required to do so within 20 working days. According to the Information Commissioner's guidelines, the maximum time to be taken, in extraordinary circumstances, should be 40 working days. Despite that, the NIO is today still deciding on its response to the Freedom of Information request submitted on May 29, 2009.

The request was prompted by growing claims that a deal acceptable to the republican prisoners was offered before the fifth hunger striker - Joe McDonnell - died in the Maze, but their wishes were over-ruled by republican sources outside the prison. It was claimed that this was done because accepting an offer may have interfered with a forthcoming election, which marked the rise of Sinn Fein as a political force.

In its initial response to the request, the NIO invoked the section 27 exemption which exists, "to protect the United Kingdom's international relations, its interests abroad and the United Kingdom's ability to protect and promote those interests".

Therefore, before deciding how to respond, the NIO must consider the public interest - and decide whether the public interest in providing the documents is outweighed by the damage or likely damage that would be caused by disclosure to the United Kingdom's "international relations, its interests abroad or its ability to protect and promote those interests".

It is understood that other countries' views on what harm disclosure might cause are taken into consideration when the public interest test is applied in such cases. In this case, it is not known what other country is being considered in the deliberations, though contacts between the Government and the Irish government during the hunger strike by IRA and INLA prisoners formed part of the Freedom of Information request.

After a complaint was made to the Information Commissioner in October, saying the delay in making a decision was unreasonable, the NIO has now been told to specify the relevant sub-section of the exemption that explains "why disclosure would, or would be likely to, prejudice international relations". It must also say whether it has concluded that the public interest is best served by making the requested details public, or whether it's best served in keeping them secret - or even if it no longer considers the exemption to apply.

It has 35 days to respond, though it also has the right to appeal against the decision notice issued by the Information Commissioner's Office.

For more details, see next Wednesday's Sentinel.