The public service card is not compulsory, but it is mandatory. So Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty told a radio programme last week. Ms Doherty deserves some sympathy for having to fight a brush fire not of her own making, as it emerged that people had been refused social welfare payments because they had declined to present a card.
The distinction she made is a fine one, but worth parsing. Although the two words are often used interchangeably, “mandatory” usually means something which is binding, in order to meet a legal requirement. “Compulsory” refers to something essential in itself ,which must be done regardless of any other factor.
Ms Doherty was therefore correct; the card is a specific requirement for citizens who wish to access a broad range of State services. It is not compulsory for every citizen to have a card. But the expansion of the mandatory requirement to include driving licence and passport applications effectively ensures it will become virtually universal. Perhaps Ms Doherty came up with this semantic distinction herself, although it sounds suspiciously like a post-hoc theological rationalisation by her department.
Is it all, as some suggest, a silly season non-story? The enabling legislation has been in place for many years, and more than half the population already possesses a card, with little evidence of any problems. There is clearly merit, once the right data protection safeguards are in place, in the different organs of the State being able to systematise the range of relationships they have with us.
But there is a core principle at stake here. The authority of every state rests ultimately on its position as the sole repository of power, In countries where democracy and the rule of law apply, that power is held in check by courts and parliament. Therefore, when this State wields coercive power – including the denial of services or travel documents – it has a particular obligation to show clearly and conclusively that its actions are legally robust and absolutely necessary. In this instance, that requirement has yet to be met.