The Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM), jointly headed by two ministers from opposing parties, is unlike any of the other prime ministries in the British Isles.
It is therefore obvious why that department is so often chronically slow to respond to issues which are even mildly controversial. The department has frequently failed to respond promptly — if at all — to requests from journalists, written Assembly questions, letters from the Assembly committee which scrutinises its actions and to Freedom of Information (FoI) requests.
Mike Nesbitt’s victory over an FoI request for a report about the Maze peace centre — which was proposed by the department but has since been dropped after DUP opposition — reveals what would appear to be a slight change in tack from the department.
In the past, OFMDFM appeared either entirely to ignore FoI requests or respond to them so late that it was one of only a handful of UK departments placed under formal monitoring by the Information Commissioner.
It would appear that rather than ignore requests because the DUP and Sinn Fein cannot agree on the response, the department has now decided to refuse valid information requests.
The decision of the Information Commissioner compelling OFMDFM to release the Maze material shows that a British watchdog will not accept unjustified attempts to hide information from members of the public. There are pros and cons to transparency laws and it is unsurprising that those in power often find them uncomfortable. But whether one likes the law or not, it remains the law and must be obeyed.
There is great public cynicism about Stormont and often our political leaders blame the media for what they claim is relentlessly accentuating the negative.
But if OFMDFM wants to increase the standing of the Executive, a first step would be a fresh approach to transparency rather than the current approach of trying to suppress legitimate FOI requests.