Records compiled by a panel reporting on the disbandment of paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland have been destroyed.
Details of the documents’ destruction emerged after a Freedom of Information request by the sister of an IRA murder victim.
The panel was set up by the Stormont Executive in the wake of the murder of Kevin McGuigan to examine ways to disband paramilitary groups.
Catherine McCartney said she was shocked to discover that the records hadn’t been kept.
She is reporting their destruction to the Information Commissioner as an alleged breach of the Freedom of Information Act.
Speaking exclusively to the Belfast Telegraph, she said: “The panel was carrying out a task for a public purpose.
“The Government drew up an action plan based on the report.
“I believe the public have a right to view records relating to the compilation of that report. No explanation was offered as to why the records were destroyed.”
In a statement, the Department of Justice – which revealed the documents’ destruction following the FoI requests – said that the panel had been “wholly independent” from it and the management of the records was “a matter for the panel”.
Two of the panel’s three members yesterday said they had been given legal advice that, as an independent body, they didn’t fall under the auspices of the Freedom of Information Act and that records should be destroyed because of the sensitive nature of their work.
Father-of-eight McGuigan was shot dead outside his east Belfast home two years ago this weekend. The PSNI said IRA members were involved in his murder.
The ex-republican prisoner was targeted in retaliation for the killing of former Provo commander ‘Jock’ Davison three months earlier. Ms McCartney, whose brother Robert was stabbed to death by the IRA in 2005, was once a neighbour of the McGuigan family in the Short Strand.
Former Alliance Party leader Lord Alderdice, former Women’s Coalition leader Monica McWilliams and solicitor John McBurney were appointed to the panel in December 2015.
It was given six months to draw up a report on the disbandment of paramilitary groups.
FoI requests reveal that they were each paid £500 a day and were expected to work on average two days a week. The panel said they consulted widely meeting paramilitaries, academics, church leaders, political parties, women’s groups and a “range of community and business representatives”.
They also met statutory agencies including the Probation Board, Equality Commission, Housing Executive and Victims Commissioners.
The Department of Justice stated: “The Fresh Start Panel destroyed any records it held as part of its winding up process. It did not transfer any records to the Department of Justice or any other Executive Department.” Ms McCartney said: “I was astounded that a panel compiling a public report on paramilitaries hadn’t retained its records.
“I am reporting this to the Information Commissioner as an alleged breach of the Freedom of Information Act.”
Ms McCartney also criticised the panel for not speaking to Kevin McGuigan’s widow Dolores – although it was his murder a few months earlier that led to the panel’s establishment. Nor did they speak to IRA murder victim Paul Quinn’s mother Breege, or Ms McCartney and her sisters.
A Department of Justice spokesman said: “The Independent Fresh Start Panel operated under its own autonomy and was wholly independent from the department. The information held by the panel was at no time stored within the Department of Justice information systems, nor did the department have access to its information.
“The management of Independent Fresh Start Panel information and its records was a matter for the panel.”
When asked by the Belfast Telegraph about the destruction of records, panel member Mr McBurney said: “The legal advice that was provided to the panel was that, as an entirely independent body, we were not within the bodies listed within the scope of the Freedom of Information Act.
“As there were sensitive and complex dimensions to our work, privacy and confidentiality were essential. Documentation was treated in that manner throughout the panel processes to its conclusion.”
Fellow panel member Ms McWilliams said: “The legal advice we were given was that we were an independent panel, and not departmental, so we didn’t come under the Freedom of Information Act and, because of the sensitivity of the subject we were examining, that any records would be destroyed.”
Ms McWilliams acknowledged that the panel hadn’t talked to Mrs McGuigan, Mrs Quinn, or the McCartney sisters.
She said the panel’s six-month reporting deadline meant time was limited, but she hoped to talk to those victims in her role as a commissioner on a new international watchdog monitoring progress on tackling paramilitary crime.
The Independent Reporting Commission will be reporting over a five-year period which will enable opportunity for extensive consultation, she said.
Ms McWilliams insisted that the views of women victims of paramilitaries had been sought by the Fresh Start Panel.
“We talked to a range of women’s groups, some of whose members were victims. We also had a five-hour meeting with the Wave Trauma Centre,” she said.
The third panel member, Lord Alderdice, couldn’t be contacted for comment.
The panel’s report contained 43 proposals to achieve four objectives – “promoting lawfulness, support for transition, tackling criminal activity, addressing systemic issues”. Its recommendations were warmly welcomed by the then First Minister and Deputy First Minister, Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness.