- 05 Sep 17
When you are told that you need a Public Services Card to avail of social welfare or to renew a driving licence, it is mere semantics to claim that the cards are not compulsory…
When a member of the family went to renew her driving license recently, she was asked for her Public Services Card. She was baffled. She’d renewed her licence on numerous occasions in the past, and this had never arisen before.
But the person on the other side of the bureaucratic line was insistent: you have to produce your Public Services Card to get a driving licence. So how do I do that when I don’t have one?
It was a perfectly reasonable question. No one had informed her of the requirement in advance.
However, as anyone who has been on the wrong side of its machinations will tell you, bureaucracy is relentless. The answer was crunchingly unhelpful. You have to go and get one.
She had already taken a morning off work to travel out to Leopardstown, where the driving licence renewal office is located. Now, she’d have to do it all over again at a later date. What kind of public service is that?
In all sorts of ways, we are edging ever closer to the kind of regime of which the Stasi would approve. She didn’t say that to the officials at the time, but she might have. Because that is certainly the way it looks.
PENSION CUT OFF
The idea of citizens being forced to carry a compulsory ID card has been around for years. There are good reasons why this is viewed as a bridge too far by advocates for civil liberties. The spectre of a Big Brother-style society, in which the police can stop you and demand proof of your identity on the spot, at any time of the day or night, is a deeply unattractive one.
We are citizens of a Republic, where – in theory at least – everyone is entitled to be treated equally. Would the people living in the swankier parts of Dublin be stopped as often as people in disadvantaged areas on the northside? Which would be more likely to be asked to show his or her identity card: a Roma or a chap with a plummy accent from Foxrock? A black Nigerian male or someone dressed in a nun’s outfit?
Do we want to see racial profiling in Ireland? I don’t think so. Do we want governments to be able to track our physical movements and our private life? There is far too much of that already.
Even in the hands of a police force that is scrupulously fair-minded, the requirement to carry an ID card is likely to be used in a selective and unconsciously prejudiced way. But with the reputation of the Gardaí at an historic low, no one can seriously make the claim that we can and should rely on the force to always do the right thing.
The ID idea germinated within the so-called Department of Social Protection. The wheeze was likely sold to politicians as a way of cutting down on “welfare fraud”, and it may even do that. But at what cost in terms of civil liberties? At what cost in terms of how you feel about the country in which you live?
Had anyone in government thought about that, before a decision was made to make it mandatory to have a Public Services Card in order to access social welfare payments? Not in any serious way, I suspect.
You want the dole? You have to sign up for a card.
If anyone had suggested that this was a Trojan horse, and that a compulsory ID card would inevitably follow, they’d have been dismissed as a crank. Equally, if you had argued that it was, in itself, the basis for an insidious form of discrimination then you’d have been laughed at. But on both counts you’d have been right.
To state the obvious, very wealthy people are unlikely to need a Public Services Card – for when would they be likely to avail of it?
So far, we’re talking about the usual class-based discrimination on which societies across the world for the most part function. If you are at the bottom of the food chain or close to it, you will be treated like a potential criminal. And if the colour of your skin places you in a minority, then you can expect more of the same. And if you are young, or a student, and you are politically active, well you are probably fair game too.
But there was, it began to emerge, even more to this. Because other so-called services provided by the State are gradually also being used as a way of pushing citizens into the ID net.
Out of the blue recently, another relation was threatened that her family’s Children’s Allowances would be stopped if she didn’t produce a Public Services Card. When was that requirement ever announced or debated in the Dáil?
And news reports confirmed that one woman in her 70s had her pension cut off because she refused, on the basis that no legislation required her to, to apply for the card. She hasn’t been able to collect the pension for 18 months and is owed in the region of €13k.
So here’s where we now seem to stand. If you are applying for, or renewing, a driving licence, you are now required to produce a Public Services Card – or you will simply have to stop driving in Ireland. The same either is, or will be, true of acquiring a passport. By the look of it, by the time the bureaucrats are finished, there is nothing for which the card won’t be required.
DEVIOUS AND UNDERHAND
It doesn’t matter what way you crunch this particular number, or even sing it. What we are seeing here is a pre-meditated policy of introducing what is really a compulsory ID card by stealth.
Trying to pretend that there is a meaningful difference between “mandatory” and “compulsory” – as several ministers have done – is farcical, Kafkaesque stuff. All of this is happening against a backdrop of illicit data mining on a grand scale by the big tech companies, which has been facilitated by Governments in the US, the UK, Europe and Ireland – though there is a hint at least that restrictions on the use and abuse of this data and the way in which it is gathered are being actively considered by the EU.
It would be self-deluding to pretend that the arguments in favour of an ID card are entirely without foundation. I have no time whatsoever for the hype about social welfare fraud, but terrorist activities across Europe, which have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of EU citizens, impose on governments a requirement to monitor closely and assess accurately the possibility of Islamic extremist actions, for one. And there is the new threat from Nazis and White Supremacists also to consider.
However you view the idea of compulsory ID cards – and I am still not convinced that they are necessary – it is clearly wrong to introduce them in a devious and underhand way. By all means, if Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, Labour et al want to introduce them, then let them debate it in the Dáil.
We live in a relatively benign democracy – but there is no guarantee that this is permanent. If the likes of Ahmet Erdegun or Viktor Orban were to ascend to power here, then the ID card would almost certainly be used to crush dissent.
In the absence of democratic debate, making it a requirement for citizens to carry a Public Services Card in order to access what are ordinary citizens rights is plain wrong – and students should be in the vanguard of opposing it.