Why we need to be worried about Ireland's FOI process
Updated: Dec 2, 2021
Like really fuckin worried...
So, we've written this great website page about how important the Freedom of Information process is for keeping tabs on how public bodies are discharging their duties to enforce welfare laws. Seriously give it a read.
And after reading this you may think: Ok – so this is all well and good, right? There are regs, there’s a FOI system to allow checks and balances – where’s the problem?
Well, the problem lies in the application of the Freedom of Information Act. Since obtaining inspection records from Cavan, we have made numerous FOI requests to other Local Councils and the Department of Agriculture Food and the Marine for information relating to how the Dog Breeding Establishment Act and Regulations are being enforced. Primarily our team have sought inspection records. So these are documents produced by the officer who inspects a dog breeding establishment (usually a vet, sometimes a dog warden) to record the conditions they find and to check how the facility complies with the law.
Here's the thing - every single request has been met with the same refusal – inspection records from dog breeding establishments have been refused because to release them will allegedly threaten the lives and safety of the dog breeders or the vets inspecting these farms.
The oft trotted out line goes something like this: most animal rights activists are fine – but there is a small cohort that they can’t trust not to be violent. And then there is so often this generic reference to.... PROTEST. And the general message is that animal rights activists protest and this makes them a threat...
You’re thinking – “I’m sorry – whooooot?!”
Yeah we know – we are also wracking our brains to try to remember all the violent protests in Ireland by animal rights activists…. And the reason we can’t think of any -is because there haven’t been any.
These protests... not violent....
These refusals are justified without reference to any actual substantive threat. The Department of Agriculture Food and the Marine have cited, as examples of supposed animal activist violence – fur farm protests and Dublin Circus protests. But they never provided any evidence by way of newspaper articles or similar to evidence these supposedly violent protests (in fact they didn't even provide dates that these violent incidents allegedly occurred). Here’s the thing – there was no violence from those concerned about animal rights. There was a circus protest in Dublin in 2016 that turned violent –but it was the circus workers who were violent. And the net result of this approach is that the violence of those who confine and abuse animals is being used as a justification to refuse information to those who seek to help animals.
The thread that runs through all of the refusals appears to be that the mere existence of a protest means a request for information will be refused. These government departments are weaponizing the right to protest against the public. It is as if they equate protest with illegality and violence. This is extremely dangerous.
OK – but there is an appeal mechanism, no?
Yes there is an independent body tasked with reviewing decisions by government bodies relating to freedom of information requests – this is the Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC). Yet the OIC has consistently endorsed the refusals for information and in doing so have misapplied the act and misunderstood their statutory obligations. On at least 5 occasions (see our case list in Resources for details of these decisions) the OIC has upheld a refusal without a shred of evidence to substantiate the supposed threat the release of the information will cause.
This is a serious problem.
It's a serious problem because every misinformed decision by the OIC chips away the foundation of a democratic society and creates a sense of impunity among some public officials.