The News Letter has been told that more than 250 requests for information to the Public Records Office (PRONI) are affected by a legal technicality that now prohibits the office from answering them.
The requests were submitted under nearly two-decades old Freedom of Information Act - a piece of law commonly used by journalists to obtain official files.
However, PRONI has now said a quirk of the way the Freedom of Information legislation was written means that without a minister in place at the Department for Communities (the department which has responsibility for PRONI), it should cease responding to certain requests under Freedom of Information law for old, closed files which it holds.
It is thought the reason for this may relate to the fact PRONI’s records are essentially archived files originating from other departments; this means those other departments need to be consulted about their release and, the communities minister should be informed of the need for the involvement of other departments.
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The department said “the suspension affects 257 requests”.
It also said that from March 2017 until now, it had already completed 1,062 requests before being informed by the Information Commissioner’s Office that, in fact, it had no power to do so.
The News Letter found out about the problem when PRONI said it was not able to respond to a request from the paper for court documents relating to the murder of RUC officer Clive Graham in 1988.
The request should have been completed in April, but this week PRONI said it was not able to try answering at all.
Alan Lewis, UUP representative for south Down, said: “This is now another avenue of closure and discovery closed to victims and survivors. We are now seeing complete obstruction within the victims sector.”
It was already known that the PSNI had a big backlog of Freedom of Information requests which it was working through, and Mr Lewis said “this latest update from PRONI effectively shuts the door on victims and survivors who seek to use the current mechanisms as a means of further investigation”.
He added: “We are now seeing the outworkings of total political failure in Northern Ireland.
“Sinn Fein will pay the price at next years local government election, they have held Northern Ireland and the basic functions of Government to ransom for party political gain.”
The Information Commissioner’s Office said: “We recognise the significant difficulties caused by these particular and unusual circumstances and are in contact with the Permanent Secretary of the Department for Communities and other stakeholders regarding this situation.
“Our priority at the ICO is to find a prompt and effective solution in order to protect the public’s right to access public information.”
Belfast law firm KRW Law is understood to be challenging the suspension.
The suspension is not expected to impact the scheduled annual release of declassified files in December 2018.