Monday 16 September 2019

Gene Kerrigan: 'Another week, another Fine Gael scandal'

In pushing its identity card, the State has bullied individuals and treated the rest of us with contempt, writes Gene Kerrigan

Soapbox cartoon
Soapbox cartoon
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

At the heart of the Public Services Card scandal is a woman in her 70s. She was bullied, abused and betrayed by a State that was arrogant, incoherent, aggressive and stupid.

The regulatory system that was supposed to oversee the State's behaviour was overly-respectful of the State, and hesitant to act.

The woman had the persistence and backbone to stand her ground long after most of us would have surrendered.

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The scandal has revealed two other things - one bad, and one hopeful.

It has revealed - yet again - the contempt with which this Government regards wide sections of the people.

And it has revealed that the real political opposition is outside the Oireachtas.

I don't buy into the conspiracy theory, that the whole thing began with a devilish plan to whip away our privacy and impose Stalinesque controls.

The governing politicians are just not that bright. The Stalinist urges are there, but that came later.

This scandal began during the Celtic Tiger period, when the politicians and their rich friends were full of themselves.

They realised they had the technology to make these cool smart cards - and money wasn't a problem - just a measly €60m or so.

Only later, when things were tight and they discovered that €60m is not loose change, did they think up reasons why they'd splashed out on the card.

The major reason was alleged to be that they wanted reliable protocols to identify people receiving State services - specifically, State supports.

This was an attractive proposition for this Government. As Leo Varadkar showed in his campaign for the leadership of Fine Gael, belittling people on State supports is popular with the party base.

There are always people who manage to pull a fast one, but the controls on State supports are strong, with no significant history of fraud.

In Leo Varadkar's Fine Gael, however, it's an item of faith that when you lose a job, get sick or grow old, you develop loose morals.

Gradually, other State departments demanded that members of the public register for the card. The Government had legislated for the card through the Department of Social Protection. There was no legal basis for other departments to demand its use.

If the Government wanted a database with increasingly detailed information on millions of people they had a right to propose it, argue for it and - if they won the argument - implement it.

Creating such a database is a very serious matter, with potentially dangerous consequences for individuals and for society - our privacy, our rights, the potential manipulation of data against our interests.

Rather than debate this and legislate for it, the politicians seem to have allowed the Public Service Card to drift towards becoming a national identity card almost by default.

No debate, no legislation. Just a nod and a wink and one day, oh, look, where did that come from, but isn't it amazing.

Now that we've got it, they'd chortle, let's keep it, yah?

Most people, when they want a passport, a driving licence, a library card or whatever, are content to bring along the usual pieces of ID - the utility bill with their address, etc.

It's no big deal.

The Government now claims that it brought in the Public Service Card because it wanted to spare us the misery of cluttering up our pockets with bank statements, electricity bills and the like, on the few occasions in a lifetime that we have to prove our identity to the State.

These same politicians, who solemnly promised as far back as 2007 to end the trolley culture in hospitals, see no urgent reason to spare us from festering and dying on trolleys 12 years later.

These same politicians refuse to implement housing policies that worked in decades past. They allow the well-off and the seriously rich to prosper hugely from the crisis, and see no urgency in preventing the devastating social misery their policies cause.

But they want us to believe they couldn't bear the thought of us having to go through that horrific thing with the utility bills more than once.

Because of the lack of legislation, if the card was to be pushed into widespread use it depended on the obedience of the public.

Which is where the tough, stubborn woman in her 70s came into the story (from the beginning she wanted privacy, so her name isn't in the public domain).

She was due a pension. They told her she needed the card. She said she didn't, she'd identified herself, and she was entitled to the money without indulging them in their whimsical empire-building (or words to that effect).

So, for 18 months, they withheld the pension. They deprived her of €13,000.

Last week two years ago, Elaine Edwards wrote the woman's story in the Irish Times and the bullying was revealed. We don't know how many other people were bullied, how many thought they'd no choice, how many simply gave in.

Meanwhile, concerned lawyers were warning there was no legal basis for what the Government was doing.

Digital rights and civil rights activists campaigned against the spread of the card, and were reported by journalists with a special interest in freedom of information. This constituted a very real and effective opposition.

The Government simply stonewalled. Media that reported critically on the issue - such as The Journal - got used to getting phone calls from the department, claiming the reporting was wrong.

In the course of an unrelated Freedom of Information request, solicitor Simon McGarr - who had been publicly critical of the card - got hold of an internal memo in which senior civil servants discussed his activities.

Most of us remained mostly ignorant - passive observers at best.

Meanwhile, an active opposition was relentless, and the State was very consciously fighting to preserve an initiative for which it hadn't bothered to create a legal basis.

The Elaine Edwards story alerted many to this dirty battle going on. Behind the scenes, the Data Protection Commission was arguing with the Government that it had no legal basis for its actions - apart from in social welfare matters - and it should stop the spread of the card.

Commissioner Helen Dixon has admitted that the Data Protection Commission argued "possibly too long" before it opened an official investigation into what was going on. There's no "possibly" about it.

Because of such hesitancy, the State got away with collecting data on 3.2 million people, with no legal basis for its actions. Now, it has been ordered to delete that information. There may be other consequences.

The report of the DPC has not been published. Incredibly, the Department of Social Protection is considering its publication.

The minister, Regina Doherty, refused to respond to media queries, saying her department had just got the report. Her department had a draft report for a year. It was in regular contact with the Commission and knew damn well what the issues of concern were. The report is a mere 172 pages; the relevant part cannot be more than a few pages.

From beginning to end, this is atrocious behaviour - to individuals, who were bullied, and to this society, which was treated with contempt.

Is there anything good to be said about this Government?

Well, yes, there is.

They haven't actually initiated a programme in which individual ministers go door-to-door, punching people in the face.

Not yet.

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