Regina Doherty adopts pugnacious style but Dáil grilling a car-crash performance

Regina Doherty adopts pugnacious style but Dáil grilling a car-crash performance
Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty

It’s hard to escape the feeling that Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty’s appearance before her own Oireachtas committee yesterday was anything but an embarrassing car crash for her personally.

The minister’s day in the spotlight had been much-anticipated given it was her first such since the release of the Data Protection Commissioner’s highly adversarial report into her department’s public services card (PSC) project. Now the chickens have come home to roost.

In the course of a very quick 90 minutes, the minister:

  • Denied repeatedly that the PSC had ever been mandatory for any Government services, which it most certainly has (“mandatory but not compulsory” anyone?)
  • Delivered erroneous opinion on what certain non-welfare projects (the driving licence PSC requirement) had meant for citizens at a fundamental level
  • Claimed her department had asked no formal questions of the attorney general regarding the legality of the card, despite receiving formal advice in return
  • Pointed the finger firmly at Shane Ross regarding that minister’s own use of attorney general advice before pulling the mandatory use of the card for acquiring a driving licence, with Doherty saying Ross certainly didn’t ask the same questions on the card’s legality that she had
  • Caused a potential avalanche of legal issues in saying that her department is holding 3.2m historic data records on cardholders because the Ombudsman told them to
  • Said her department doesn’t hold individual details of people’s free travel pass activity, when her secretary general recently told the Public Accounts Committee it does
  • Described other documented plans the Government had for the PSC, such as possibly y replacing the medical card or being used for school transport appeals, as irrelevant “anecdotes”
  • Said her department had to push ahead with the PSC or risk breaching its own legislation (EU data protection legislation trumps domestic Social Protection law)
  • Failed to countenance the fact that, in challenging the Data Protection Commissioner, she is setting a worrying precedent with regard to the regulation of the myriad multinational data-based companies that call Ireland their home

That’s a lot of controversy to squeeze into such a short space of time.

In a way, you could say the minister suffers from being too good a politician.

Repeating whatever nonsense they are briefed upon with absolute conviction is an important skill for a politico, and the minister’s pugnacious style generally serves her well. But that gives the lie to the fact she had never really been queried directly and at length over the PSC, on a factual level and at length in a public forum, since the DPC’s report first dropped.

Yesterday she was, the same soundbites were trotted out, but when the discussion got into the weeds of the PSC project Ms Doherty was found seriously wanting.

In this context, she has been woefully underserved by her own officials, who sent her out to spout things that are demonstrably false, and by her colleague Paschal Donohoe who has overall responsibility for the card’s expansion to non-welfare services but has let Ms Doherty take almost 100% of the opprobrium.

At the same time, how does a senior minister of state, dealing with a subject she has been quizzed on for two years now, go before a committee and say so many inaccurate things?

Yesterday, the minister laughed when it was suggested to her that Ireland’s small but accomplished data protection community are to a man sceptical at best as to the PSC’s legality. If her department’s legal challenge of the Data Protection Commissioner fails, it will be no laughing matter.

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