The Eircode scandal

In July 2015, after many years of deliberation and (we now know) internal wrangling, the Government finally announced the introduction of a national system of postal codes. Under the brand name Eircode (everything nowadays has to have a brand name, even public services), it gives a unique code to every postal address within the 26 Counties.

The project caused controversy when it was discovered that it is poorly designed and in fact is not fit for purpose. There are many other technical problems; but the real scandal is the ownership, and the way this ownership was allocated, and is exercised.

The database, which needs constant updating, is privately owned and copyright. As with the mobile phone scandal, the licence was granted in a manner contrary to the norms for public tendering. In this case it was awarded to a subsidiary of the British financial services and “outsourcing” company Capita PLC.

This is a corporation whose activities in England include the ownership of several public utilities, the administration of medical records for the National Health Service (in 2016 a survey of GPs found that 85 per cent were missing patients’ records in what the Guardian described as “another botched privatisation”), contracts for the assessment of fitness to work, electronic tagging of prisoners, a recruiting contract for the British army, and operating the Fire Service College. In Germany it operates a call centre business and in Ireland the billing system for Irish Water.

It has since been revealed that a perfectly functional system had already been devised within the Department of Communication itself. This could be implemented virtually overnight, and would have cost the state precisely nothing. (The introduction of Eircode was estimated to cost €20 million; in the event it cost €38 million, to which must be added the annual maintenance cost of several millions in perpetuity.) But this would have clashed with the Government’s subservience to the European Union and its dogmatic policy of privatising everything in sight and, most particularly, not allowing any new public enterprise, no matter how economical it might be.

Most of the other tenders were quickly rejected also after a cursory and highly dubious assessment.

Delivery companies and emergency services must now purchase access to the database. There is a limited one-at-a-time search facility, operated in conjunction with Google Maps, so requiring an application owned and operated by the notorious sucker-up of personal data.

Where is the dividing line now between public services, privatised public services, and transnational corporations? Alas, there isn’t one.