Stormont's Executive Office claims devices wiped after ministers stepped down

WhatsApp messages sent by former Stormont ministers during the pandemic have been lost after government-issued electronic devices were wiped, the UK Covid Inquiry has been told.

Counsel to the inquiry, Clair Dobbin KC, said this included the devices of former First Minister Baroness Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill.

The inquiry is holding a preliminary hearing into the devolved administration’s decision making and response to the pandemic.

Ms Dobbin said informal communications such as WhatsApp messages “may be of a forensic value in preserving what individuals thought or knew at a given point in time”.

She said that after the inquiry was established in 2021, the permanent secretaries of all devolved departments were contacted asking them to ensure no material of potential relevance to the inquiry was destroyed.

Ms Dobbin said the inquiry had sought at “an early point” information on informal communications, including WhatsApp messages, sent by former Stormont ministers or senior civil servants.

She said: “In August 2023, The Executive Office (TEO) notified the inquiry team of a potential loss of data in relation to the Northern Ireland Civil Service supplied devices that were held by former Executive ministers and senior civil servants.

“TEO informed the inquiry that the government-supplied devices of the former first minister Baroness Arlene Foster and the deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill had been reset to factory settings.

“It was said this was also the position in relation to other ministers and meant that no data was available from those devices.”

Ms Dobbin said the inquiry’s legal team immediately expressed “grave concern” and sought the detail of what had happened.

She added: “TEO informed the inquiry that it would ascertain the circumstances of what had happened in which the data loss arose.

“This became a formal investigation.”

Ms Dobbin was addressing inquiry chair Baroness Heather Hallett, pictured Credit: Lucy North/PA

Ms Dobbin said the TEO had provided a report to the inquiry last week and further information was being sought.

The barrister also said that efforts were continuing to recover some of the material which had been lost.

She said: “That some devices have been reset does not mean that there isn’t WhatsApp material, there is.

“We will continue to work to secure that WhatsApp material.”

Addressing inquiry chair Baroness Heather Hallett, Ms Dobbin said: “The question of the wiping or resetting of devices itself remains at large but you will undoubtedly want to have time to consider the report by the TEO and the witness statement and you may also wish to consider the issue of the resetting of devices as part of your overall considerations about the use of informal communications.

“You may want to hear evidence or understand more about the extent in which informal communication was used and the preservation of messaging.

“You may wish to be able to judge the effect of wiping or resetting devices in light of material which is disclosed.”

Ms Dobbin said the inquiry’s legal team had been “demanding” of what it had required of witnesses in Northern Ireland.

“The inquiry team is aware that the absence of power sharing arrangements has added to pressures on departments and civil servants in responding to this inquiry,” she said.

She added that the inquiry had to date received more than 35,000 documents of evidence from Stormont departments, including notes and minutes of Executive meetings and briefing papers.

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