Ireland is one of three EU States – along with Denmark and the UK – that does not formally issue national identity cards. For the past decade, however, there has been administrative creep here as successive governments authorised the issuing of public services cards that are used for social welfare claims, free travel and other allowances. Card registration will soon be required to qualify for driving tests and passports and it may not stop there. Ministers insist the cards are voluntarily but this has become an exercise in obfuscation.
Almost three million cards have been issued to date, leading to criticism from civil liberties groups that it amounts to the introduction of national identity cards by the back door. Because of a catch-22 approach being taken by the Department of Social Protection, it is hard to disagree with that assessment. Citizens are required to satisfy the minister as to their identity to qualify for payments. To receive their entitlements, however, officials demand a public services card as proof of identity. Production of a passport or other document is, apparently, not regarded as sufficient. As a common law country, there has been resistance to the introduction of identity cards and governments traditionally backed away from the idea. Computerisation of State databases, however, brought demands for a standardised means of assessing public services and for identity verification to combat fraud. Rather than invite public debate about the implications of the card, the main political parties accepted its introduction on the grounds of fraud prevention and a more efficient public service.
The card has saved the State millions of euro in fraudulent welfare claims, and the Government argues that it has reduced the incidence of overall administrative error. Politicians have defended its introduction on the grounds of fraud prevention and this justification clearly resonates with voters. Because of the manner of its introduction and its opaque legal status, however, it should not be treated as the only means of identification when qualifying for State benefits.