No disclosure for Northern Ireland Secretary’s first day briefing papers
The Northern Ireland Office has refused to release Julian Smith’s first day briefing papers.
The current Secretary of State was appointed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in July 2019.
Mr Smith, MP for Skipton and Ripon, replaced Karen Bradley, who once admitted that when she took up the post in January 2018 she had not understood some of the “deep-seated and deep-rooted issues” in the region.
Following Mr Smith’s appointment, the PA news agency requested a copy of the first day briefing document that had been prepared for him.
The NIO responded by refusing to disclose it.
In its response, the NIO said it had not found a precedent for other departments releasing such materials, adding that much of the advice given to the Secretary of State “filtered through into Parliamentary statements, other public comments and correspondence relating to the issues covered, where appropriate”.
It went on to state that some of the contents relate to sensitive matter, such as threat assessments, and added that to release such briefing information “could also put a greater focus on process than policy decisions”.
The response said it had been “concluded it was in the public interest to withhold the documents”.
Meanwhile the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) responded positively to the same request, issuing PA with some of the briefing notes it had prepared for Chief Constable Simon Byrne who also took up post in July, similarly arriving in the region from England.
A section of suggested questions for Mr Byrne’s first press conference included some of the major talking points which affect policing, including Brexit, the Soldier F trial, and the threat to officers from dissident republicans.
The list also included advice that the previous secretary of state Ms Bradley had recently been asked by a journalist whether she had ever read the Belfast Agreement.
Former political communications director turned commentator Alex Kane queried the decision not to release Mr Smith’s briefing documents.
“Mr Smith arrived almost two-and-a-half years after the Assembly collapsed and against a growing public anger on issues like health and education, along with concerns about the possible impact of Brexit on NI,” he said.
“The parties, all of them as it happens, have conducted a very public squabble about who is to blame: with the DUP and SF in particular blaming each other.
“In my view the public has a right to know the truth, along with hard evidence of what the problems actually are. And wasn’t it interesting that just a few days ago Smith not only named the DUP as the problem party, but went further, ‘I know there are people in the DUP who want to move forward; I would urge them to move forward so that we can get this done’.
“I don’t remember an SoS making that sort of very public criticism anytime recently, very specifically blaming one party and then seeming to hint that the progressives in the party bypass the non-progressives.
“If he is willing to say that now then why the problem with releasing the contents of his briefing documents back in July?”