Thursday 8 December 2016

Facts are mainly user-friendly: It's time to let in the light on the talks

Opinion: John Downing on politics

Published 18/05/2016 | 02:30

Luke 'Ming' Flanagan
Luke 'Ming' Flanagan

'But surely, you wouldn't be discussing your business in confession."

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That was the typically roguish response of one Kildare horse trainer, now long deceased, when asked in a BBC interview how he squared some questionable race-preparation practices, with his devout Catholicism generally and the specific requirement to respect the sacrament of penance.

We know the feeling. Most of us like at least a modicum of privacy in relation to our personal affairs, especially our finances. Farmers, like most business people, like to keep business deals confidential for the good of all concerned.

But there are times when secrecy can be corrosive. Recent tumultuous events around pay and perks in the IFA speak for themselves.

The issue of secrecy also surrounds ongoing efforts to forge a major EU-US trade deal, the so-called TTIP. The EU side says it is trying to be as open as possible on this ongoing process - but it is hampered by a very different approach by the US negotiators. Brussels officials argue that it is not their role to reveal US information.

In an odd process, which further fuels suspicions, MEPs are also only allowed view TTIP documents in a secluded room and make notes with pencil and paper - as mobile phones, tablets and other electronic devices are banned. European parliament officials explained that note-taking is normally not allowed when consulting classified information.

But in this case the commission has agreed MEPs can take handwritten notes when consulting the TTIP documents. Brussels diplomats argue that an unprecedented number of documents have so far been declassified in a transparency initiative.

Irish MEP, Luke 'Ming' Flanagan, who seemed to have disappeared on us for a time there, made the headlines last week. There was a predictable row about a video he made about the "reading room farce" and he argued that he was curtailed in his note-taking as verbatim transcribing of these voluminous texts was not allowed.

The European Trade Commissioner, Cecilia Malmström, and her US counterpart, trade representative Michael Froman, are leading the talks. Both sides say progress is being made and they hope to get closer to a fully-fledged trade deal this year before President Obama leaves office.

But others feel that is optimistic. Ireland's commissioner, Phil Hogan, is riding shotgun on the agri-components of the deal and it falls to the incoming Agriculture Minister, Michael Creed, to fight Ireland's corner here.

Mr Creed makes his EU debut in Brussels today at a meeting of agriculture ministers. The headline agenda includes animal welfare, agriculture and climate, the market situation and CAP simplification.

But Mr Creed tell us in the Farming Independent that he has a more immediate mission - to fight for the abolition of fertiliser import levies, something which could be a boon for Irish farmers.

Curiously, the Agriculture Minister and 'Ming' are unlikely allies on the issue of letting in some light on these talks. Mr Creed says that "the EU position is up in lights" - but the US adherence to secrecy breeds fear and encourages misinformation.

There have been myriad leaks feeding claim and counter-claim.

In Brussels, when big deals are going down, neutral or disinterested information is rather hard to come by. For everyone's sake more transparency is vital here.

John Downing is an Irish Independent political correspondent

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