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It's his baby, so where on earth is Paschal Donohoe on the PSC?

Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe is as culpable as anyone when it comes to the furore surrounding the Public Services Card. So why is he keeping such a low profile?

10/8/2016. Public Services Cards Paschal Donohoe with a mockup of the PSC after he registered for a card in Dublin in August 2016 Source: Leah Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

IT HAS BEEN a particularly inauspicious two weeks for the government from a data protection point of view.

The Public Services Card (PSC) has come front and centre in the national discourse due to reports that ‘customers’ (as the department itself describes them) of the newly-monikered Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection (DEASP) were being held to ransom over their benefits unless they were willing to sign up for the card.

One pensioner in her 70s, as reported by the Irish Times, had her pension cut off after she refused to register for a PSC.

Another Dublin woman described how her 29-year-old son had been asked to attend an appointment with DEASP to register for a card. Her son has Down Syndrome – the woman in question insists that her son would not have the mental capacity to understand what was being asked of him.

On foot of this, Minister Regina Doherty has been called upon to defend her department’s honour repeatedly on the nation’s airwaves with regard to the card (which has been around since 2012, but is to the forefront of a grand plan to unite a number of state services, such as passport applications, under the one banner).

Doherty said that the card is “mandatory but not compulsory”, which captures in a nutshell the inscrutable nature of the government’s defence of the PSC.

But another, mostly unasked, question regarding the card is where the main man behind the project to expand its usage has been – Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe.

Responsibility

The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (PER) is the government agency with responsibility for the project to expand the PSC to other state services like driving licence and passport applications.

Donohoe has been in office for 15 months, compared with Doherty’s two. He’s been ever-present throughout the brainstorming by the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer with other departments as to how the PSC might prove to be of use to their own functions.

It was Donohoe who first confirmed that the Department of Foreign Affairs would be introducing the PSC as a requirement for obtaining and renewing a passport from this month back in May – reportedly much to the chagrin of the civil servants in DFA (that whole process has now been delayed for at least a year, as Minister Simon Coveney told us last week).

Yet his public pronouncements on the subject in recent times have been few and far between.

Donohoe hasn’t mentioned the PSC  in the Dáil since a written answer to a Parliamentary Question delivered on 30 May.

In an appearance on RTÉ’s Today with Sean O’Rourke on Friday Donohoe did admittedly spend a whole 60 seconds of his 16-minute turn reiterating his support for the card, while promising to ‘review’ the entire process (how PER officials must have loved hearing that):

We think the Public Services Card is the best way of making sure that the billions of euro that we spend in providing public services are made available to the people that need them.

The Minister’s official Twitter account has tweeted less than fifteen times since 11 August (one of which was to give a shout out to an opinion piece he wrote last Thursday insisting that the PSC is not an attempt to introduce a national ID card by stealth).

His junior minister meanwhile, Pat Breen (who has specific responsibility for data protection issues), hasn’t mentioned the topic once on Twitter, despite posting prolifically in recent times.

Silly season?

Last week Irish Times columnist Noel Whelan wrote that the hype and bluster surrounding the PSC amounts fundamentally to ‘silly season’ nonsense. That is, in the period of time with no courts and no Dáil to fill column inches, the media will find any old issue to keep the masses occupied.

It would be hard to argue that the government has given any indication other than that it is of the same opinion – if everyone ignores it, the PSC is something that will just go away.

But make no mistake, the expansion of the Public Services Card’s remit is PER and Donohoe’s baby.

PER has led the entire project. Not that other departments have shied away (they haven’t, apart from when it comes to timelines), but overall responsibility lies with Public Expenditure.

“It’s not a national ID card,” Donohoe said of the PSC last week. Last March, meanwhile, he insisted that the card would not be mandatory.

His department insists he has “personally been involved in publicising developments with the card”.

“This has included press questions and answers, so he has been very open around the current and future plans for the card,” a PER spokesperson told us this weekend.

In two days’ time TheJournal.ie will run a Facebook Live debate on the PSC. Our first ports of call for people to debate in favour of the rollout and the card in general (such people being few and far between) were Ministers Donohoe and Breen.

‘No’ was the reply, delivered in short order. “The ministers will not be available,” a department official said (Regina Doherty, who in her latest media outing yesterday morning on Newstalk with presenter Sarah McInerney appeared to be completely at a loss as to whether a PSC constitutes biometric data or not, waited about 36 hours before declining).

It’s not as if Donohoe is ordinarily one to shy away from media appearances (remember Cupcakegate?). As the right-hand man for Leo Varadkar’s run for Taoiseach last May he’s become one of the most visible ministers in government.

But things have come full circle now with the Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon saying that more transparency is needed over the PSC.

The commissioner wasn’t a problem, this writer was informed previously by government sources while pulling together a piece on the PSC, so long as there was no suggestion that the expansion of the card might be illegal.

Now even that is being called into question.

Paschal may want the Public Services Card to go away. But all the indicators are that it won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

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