Credit: Arno Mikkor, Estonian Presidency under Licence CC BY 2.0 via Wiki.

Sunday Times wonders: Did Coveney’s text deletions… break the law?

Fascinating, and full credit to Justine McCarthy and John Mooney in the Sunday Times for drawing this angle to the public’s attention:

Simon Coveney, the foreign affairs minister, will be quizzed at an Oireachtas committee on Tuesday if he deleted texts with Leo Varadkar, the tanaiste, from his phone after freedom of information requests were submitted by journalists and opposition politicians seeking copies of the messages.

The full story is behind the ST’s paywall, so you can’t read if you are not a subscriber, but the bit in bold (my emphasis) is the really important bit, and the word “after” is the most important bit of all. The issue here is timing: If Coveney just deleted his texts as a matter of course, that would be odd, but not illegal. If he deleted them after a request for those texts was submitted under a freedom of information request, then that would be a criminal offence carrying with it a fine of €4,000 on each count.

But how, you ask, could we possibly know when Coveney deleted the texts?

Well, it turns out he got himself in some bother last week when he was questioned by the Oireachtas committee investigating this whole mess:

When he appeared before the Oireachtas committee on foreign affairs last week, Coveney, Fine Gael’s deputy leader, was asked by Catherine Ardagh, a Fianna Fail senator, on what date he had received a text from Zappone giving details of a party she was hosting at the Merrion hotel on July 21.

“To be honest, I do not have the exact date for when I got that text,” he replied, “but I remember seeing it after the event because of the furore around it. I did not take any notice of it at the time I got it and I did not answer it.”

The event itself – the Zappone party in the Merrion Hotel – took place on August 4th. The Sunday Times, it turns out, submitted a freedom of information request about Coveney’s texts with Zappone on July 28th, after the controversy first arose. That means, if Coveney’s evidence to the committee is accurate, that the texts were on his phone after the Sunday Times had submitted a request for them. If those texts were subsequently deleted, then they were deleted while they were the subject of a freedom of information request, according to Coveney’s own sworn testimony. That would mean, unless he is lying about having deleted them, that he broke the law.

This story, it should be said, raises important question about what records the public should, and should not, be entitled to. Coveney is also under scrutiny here for downloading Telegram, which allows users to remove all trace of messages sent and received. There are many other apps like it. There is nothing illegal about downloading Telegram, of course, but it probably is time for some sort of public debate about how much privacy senior Government officials are entitled to in regard to conversations they have in the course of fulfilling their duties. If Coveney or anybody else texts somebody like Zappone about a job, should they always be under the expectation that those messages are public property, and may be published? Or does that kind of scrutiny just make a Minister’s job impossible, and mean that more and more such conversations will just take place using other methods?

In any case, that is a separate issue to the question at stake here. Did Coveney delete these texts while they were the subject of an FOI request, or not? If he did, then that is a clear breach of the law, and a very serious one. And, in a normal democracy, you would expect that there would only be one outcome, if it transpires that he did.

But then, we’re not a normal democracy, in these matters, most of the time.

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