FOI REQUEST - - DEPT. JUSTICE REFUSES TO DENY THAT IFSA STATEMENT ON PHONE ‘TAPPING’ MAY BE CORRECT
On 13th July last the Irish Fishing & Seafood Alliance (IFSA) submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act to the Department of Justice, Department of Finance, Department of Agriculture, Food & Marine (DAFM), and the Sea Fisheries Protection ‘Authority’ (SFPA).
The FOI request was submitted as follows: “On behalf of the Irish Fishing and Seafood Alliance (IFSA) I, Cormac Burke, hereby request the following records: Any and all communications that may have taken place between the Department of Justice, Department of Finance, Department of Agriculture, Food & Marine (DAFM) and the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA) in relation to permission sought and/or the authorisation given for covert phone surveillance (aka phone ‘tapping’) or any other form of monitoring of phone conversations, verbal interactions or digital exchanges involving any person, persons or organisations in the Irish commercial fishing industry.”
Department of Justice
One of the first responses in this request was from the Dept. of Justice who stated that a decision had been made on the request by a Higher Executive Officer in the Department.
“In accordance with the relevant exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act, the decision maker can neither confirm or deny the existence of any records,” the statement read.
However, this Dept. Justice response did not clarify in their response what exactly is covered by the “relevant exemptions” upon which they refused to answer the request and, following some IFSA research, it appears that such exemptions are classed as “endangering health and safety, prejudicing law enforcement, or prejudicing someone's commercial interests”.
But, in my opinion, to refuse to give a clear answer to the straightforward IFSA question on grounds of possible “prejudicing law enforcement” or “prejudicing someone’s commercial interests” throws open a whole minefield of questions such as:
A) if the Dept. Justice has been told by certain industry ‘authorities’ that phone and/or email monitoring was essential for their version of law ‘enforcement’ then it would appear that this information is now being protected or classified - if so then why?
B) it seems ironic to refuse to answer the question on the grounds that doing so might “prejudice someone’s commercial interests” when it is the endangerment of Irish fishermen and processors’ commercial interests that is the exact reason that the FOI Request was made by the IFSA in the first place.
Meanwhile the Department of Agriculture, Food & Marine (DAFM) was reasonably helpful and contacted the IFSA to ask for an approximate time frame covered in the IFSA request and, on being told “the past ten years”, the DAFM Assistant Principle came back with a formal response to say that “the search has not yielded the records requested and I must therefore refuse your request”.
The Sea Fisheries Protection ‘Authority’ eventually also came back with its response (from their Corporate Affairs Unit) to say that “in accordance with section 15(1)(a) of the Freedom of Information Act 2014, as amended, I am refusing your request on administrative grounds in circumstances where the records sought do not exist.
“The SFPA carried out a search for records pertaining to your request and identified that no records exist. I am satisfied that all reasonable steps have been taken to identify and locate any requested records. I must therefore conclude that no such records exist and refuse your request on this basis,” the statement read.
Dept of Finance
Following several courteous phone calls to the IFSA from the Dept of Finance, it was explained that this Department is in fact now divided into two Departments (Revenue and Expenditure), and that the original FOI Request would need to be withdrawn and a new one submitted to the Dept of Expenditure (for which I saw little point given the status of the other responses).
The responses to the question raised by the IFSA brought no real surprises to an industry who believe that EVEN IF it were true and monitoring of communications of the fishing industry was going on then its going to take more than a simple FOI Request to shine a light into that particular dark corner at this time.
But the Dept of Justice response and their refusal to confirm or deny the existence of any such records will certainly raise eyebrows.
Perhaps I’m being naive but wouldn’t it seem obvious that if no such records exist then they would just issue a denial of the statement or a refusal of the request - but opting out of giving a definitive answer one way or the other will do little to persuade the people in this industry that there isn’t at least some kind of clandestine observation of the fishing sector going on at some level.