Public services card has been on table since 2005

Government lacking in efforts to convince it is not trying to smuggle in a national ID card

There are delayed responses and then there is shutting the barn door long after the horse has bolted.

The public services card has not suddenly appeared on the landscape, as if it were spirited into existence while people were away on their summer holidays.

In fact, it has been around for 12 years in various guises. Sure, the card is required for far more things than it was back then but the concept is the same.

Moreover, the debate raging at the moment about whether it’s a national identity card by the back door is the self-same debate that took place in 2005.


Back then the minister for social protection, the late Seamus Brennan, was allowed €2 million to do an 18-month trial run of the public services card. It would contain details such as name, address, photography, PPS number and medical card details, and would be used to access social welfare benefits. It could also be used by citizens in their dealings with Government departments and State bodies.

The rationale behind it was twofold. It would make for less drudgery, time-wasting and paperwork for people when dealing with the State. As a form of identity document, it would also eliminate identify fraud.

The initiative was well trailed in the media but initially did not cause a huge deal of controversy or even command much public attention.

That changed in July that year, when the London bombing atrocity occurred and a huge debate started in Britain about introducing a national identity card programme. Identity cards had never been used in common law jurisdictions such as Britain and Ireland as civil liberties defenders viewed them as an unwarranted interference with privacy and individual freedom.

Proxy ID

The Irish Government came to the view that if Britain introduced them, Ireland would have to follow suit, even though then minister for justice Michael McDowell was not a fan.

Attention turned to the public services card which some saw even then as a form of proxy identity card. While the then government and officials pointed to the huge efficiency gains, concerns were aired around the same possible intrusions that are at issue 12 years later.

There were concerns the cards would contain fingerprint and biometric information; that the data and details in the file would be shared by agencies; and that the data protection rights of individuals would be trampled upon.

Such difficulties could make the information technology system required prohibitively expensive.

During the pilot stage, Brennan was specifically asked to ensure the card would not be used for inappropriate information-sharing, and that the data privacy of citizens would be respected.

There is no doubt that even then the card was viewed as a nascent identity card. It still has that status, even though it is being used to access a wide variety of services, soon to include driving licences and passport applications. However, people are not required to carry them on their person. In addition, they are not required to show them if they are stopped by members of An Garda Síochána.

Legal safeguards

Senior Ministers have been at pains in recent days to argue that it is not introducing a national identity card by stealth. One of the safeguards built into the 2005 Act brought forward by Brennan was that the card’s use as a national identity card was prohibited.

Where the Government has fallen down in the past week has been in the manner in which it has presented the case for the card. Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty’s choice of phrase – “it’s not compulsory but mandatory” – made it sound more “Big Brother” than it was. The Government has also been very slow to fully clarify that sensitive data about individual citizens is being protected and is not being shared with other departments.