Six years on, new documents shed light on advice which saved Robinson

Peter Robinson pictured  entering Parliament Buildings on 11 January 2010, the day he temporarily stepped aside as First Minister. Pic: Colm Lenaghan
Peter Robinson pictured entering Parliament Buildings on 11 January 2010, the day he temporarily stepped aside as First Minister. Pic: Colm Lenaghan

Documents released after a long-running battle by the News Letter reveal more of the internal discussions around Peter Robinson’s position in the immediate aftermath of the scandal which at the time seemed like it would topple him as First Minister and DUP leader.

The 15 emails and notes have been released by Stormont’s Department of Finance (DoF) after new Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir abandoned his department’s appeal against a ruling by the Freedom of Information watchdog, the Information Commissioner, that they should be released.

The department said that it had dropped its appeal after the commissioner had reversed his stance on some of the documents which he had originally been ordered to be made public.

The decision to refuse to release the documents was taken by successive DUP finance ministers, but in May the department changed hands and is now run by Sinn Fein.

The documents all relate to the legal advice which Mr Robinson said cleared him of any impropriety surrounding his knowledge of the £50,000 which two property developers had lent to his wife and allowed him to return as First Minister after a brief absence.

The Information Commissioner has rejected the News Letter’s argument that the advice itself – which Mr Robinson has always said that he wants to see published – should be made public.

The commissioner accepted the department’s argument that the advice is covered by legal professional privilege, exempting it from the Freedom of Information Act. It has also upheld the department’s refusal to publish the instructions which were given to Paul Maguire QC – who was asked to give the advice when he was given the job.

However, it has ordered the release of several documents which relate to the advice and which the department wanted to remain secret.

Despite the department spending almost two years and a considerable sum of public money fighting to keep documents from being released, several of them can now be revealed to be entirely innocuous. Several are simply media questions which journalists had submitted by email to the departmental press office, asking for clarification around what Mr Maguire had been asked to do.

But others provide further insight into what was going on behind the scenes at Stormont during a period of enormous political uncertainty.

Among the documents released is an email from Richard Bullick, a DUP special adviser and one of Mr Robinson’s two most trusted lieutenants.

Mr Bullick, who is a lawyer, sent the email to Mr Robinson’s personal email address at 9.21 on 17 February 2010 - two weeks after Mr Robinson had returned as First Minister, citing Mr Maguire’s opinion.

The email contained an attached document by the name of ‘PM opinionanoreed’ - seemingly a copy of Paul Maguire’s opinion. Mr Bullick wrote: “Coloured bits could be redacted [blacked out]. So could much more but the justification would be less and the adverse comment greater.”

An hour later, Mr Bullick then forwarded the email to the then departmental solicitor, Oswyn Paulin.

That morning, Westminster standards watchdog Sir Christopher Kelly had been on Radio Ulster publicly urging Mr Robinson to publish the legal advice. Mr Robinson responded that afternoon by criticising Sir Christopher’s intervention and stating that he was looking at ways in which the advice could be published.

Mr Bullick’s email – which alludes to publishing the advice in part – appears to support Mr Robinson’s contention that he was exploring how to get it into the public domain.

Then, that evening and not long before UTV’s main news broadcast went out at 6pm, the channel’s political editor, Ken Reid, was brought in by the DUP and shown a copy of the advice, although he was not allowed to take it away. He reported that night that “it does give him a fairly clean bill of health” and that it was “fairly conclusive” that Mr Robinson had not breached the rules.

McGuinness formally disagreed over advice

The released documents show that Martin McGuinness formally recorded his opposition to Paul Maguire being commissioned to give legal advice on whether Peter Robinson had broken the rules.

On 12 January 2010 – the day after Mr Robinson temporarily stepped aside as First Minister, Mr McGuinness’s private secretary, Caroline Gillan, emailed several senior individuals – among whom were DUP advisers and the head of the civil service – to record the deputy First Minister’s views.

It said that “the dFM believes that neither legal advice from the Departmental Solicitor’s Office, nor any examination of the Spotlight programme by senior counsel, constitutes any form of independent inquiry or investigation into the issues or allegations raised by the programme”.

It added: “The dFM believes that the use of public monies to this end would be wholly inappropriate.”

Several other documents also reveal a lawyer’s concern that the media reporting of the situation was giving the impression that Mr Robinson was going to be the subject of a detailed inquiry.

In an undated note, Departmental Solicitor Oswyn Paulin said to the senior departmental press officer: “I am concerned that the report on the BBC website is misleading. An investigation by counsel would be entirely different from what we have counsel to do.”

He said that “an investigation would involve agreeing terms of reference, fact finding, possibly legal representation for those immediately affected and the publication of a report at the end...what has been asked for in this case is advice and there is no question of counsel being asked to establish the facts in this matter.”

Mr Paulin then requested that a clarification – which he had drafted – should be issued. The clarification said that “advice” had been sought from a QC, but did not explicitly say that there would be no investigation of the Robinsons by Mr Maguire.

Mr Paulin also wrote to Mr Maguire, saying that he was “concerned that a mistaken view of your role in the Robinson case was being reported and so I asked the DFP press office to clarify the position”.