New Sinn Fein Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir’s department is using public money to continue a battle to keep secret a series of documents relating to legal advice which Peter Robinson has said cleared him of any wrongdoing in 2010.
The advice from the then QC Paul Maguire – who is now a High Court judge – was requested by Mr Robinson in the wake of the January 2010 BBC Spotlight programme which revealed that his MP wife, Iris Robinson, had secured £50,000 from two property developers for her then lover.
Stormont’s old Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) – which is now the Department of Finance – two years ago rejected a News Letter Freedom of Information request for the advice.
When this newspaper appealed that decision to the Information Commissioner, which polices the transparency law, he upheld the department’s decision not to release the legal advice – but ruled that other documents related to it should be made public.
In one of the final acts of the old department while under DUP control, it appealed the Information Commissioner’s verdict to the First-tier Tribunal.
Such a move is highly unusual and has never before happened in relation to a News Letter request after a ruling by the Information Commissioner.
The tribunal process will involve several months of written legal arguments between the department and the Information Commissioner, as well as a hearing which will involve barristers for both sides – with both legal teams and the tribunal staff all being paid from public funds.
It is unclear exactly which documents the Information Commissioner ordered to be released because they were not referred to in the public Decision Notice, but were included in a separate ‘confidential annex’ which was only sent to the department.
However, it seems that the material relates, at least in part, to how the legal advice would be presented to the public, and may have involved discussions with the department’s press office.
The News Letter asked the Department of Finance whether the new Sinn Fein minister will use public money to contest the case at the tribunal.
Yesterday the department said in a brief statement: “The minister is currently fulfilling commitments in New York and will consider this matter on his return.”
Although the legal advice was never made public, Mr Robinson did show it to UTV political editor Ken Reid.
Speaking on UTV in February 2010, Mr Reid stressed that he was a layperson and that it had been a fairly complex legal document.
However, he said that insofar as he could see “it does give him a fairly clean bill of health” and that Mr Maguire said that he was “unable to concluded that the First Minister had breached the Ministerial Code or the Ministerial Code of Conduct or the Pledge of Office”.
Robinson said he wanted legal advice made public
The BBC Spotlight programme alleged that by his actions and level of knowledge about what had been going on, Peter Robinson had broken the ministerial code of conduct – something which he strenuously denied.
Under huge political and personal pressure, the then DUP leader stepped aside from his position as First Minister and – via the DUP-run Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) – commissioned legal advice as to whether he had broken his ministerial obligations (Stormont has no individual who can adjudicate on alleged breaches of the ministerial code).
The day after the Spotlight programme, Mr Robinson said he would be happy to publish the advice, but that has never happened.
When the legal opinion was received the next month, Mr Robinson said that the QC had given “detailed” advice which involved “a thorough and comprehensive examination of all of the issues” and had found that “there were no breaches whatsoever by me [of the various codes]”.
The Finance Department now says that the then minister, Sammy Wilson, showed the advice to Mr Robinson but did not expect him to show it to a journalist, so it did not waive legal privilege.