Data protection ministry lost in Pat Breen’s vast portfolio

Concern for data privacy helps lure firms to Ireland and Leo Varadkar move is damaging

Take a deep breath. Minister of State Pat Breen now has a formal job title that is a gasp-inducing 43 words long (44 if you decide to say "European Union" rather than "EU"). It is so lengthy that it also needs six embedded commas.

Deputy Breen is now officially – ready? – Minister of State across the Departments of Enterprise and Innovation, the Department of Employment and Social Protection, the Department of the Taoiseach, and the Department of Justice and Equality with special responsibility for Trade, Employment, Business, EU Digital Single Market and Data Protection (helpful hint: the commas may be used as handy indicators for when to inhale).

The title is so long it couldn't even be included on the Fine Gael website, where it's shortened to 17 words.

This is ridiculous, and not just because Breen’s job title is only 15 words shorter than Amhrán na bhFiann.


No, it's idiotic because these grab-bag sub-ministries toss together a hodgepodge of areas too broad for one person to cover effectively (good grief: just look at that title). But more significantly, because the new Cabinet takes what was a groundbreaking new ministerial role in data protection, created by Enda Kenny and awarded to Dara Murphy, and shoves it into another already-huge portfolio.

International concern

Now we have what one Twitter wag, Joe Desbonnet, described as “basically Minister of Jobs (or lack thereof) and The Cyber”. At a time when what Trump lumped together as “The Cyber” is, alone, of major international concern.

Murphy was, from 2014 until the start of this week, Minister of State for European Affairs, EU Digital Single Market and Data Protection. Not only did this job have the advantage of being pronounceable in a single intake of breath, it also usefully focused on a set of closely related areas.

Murphy clearly took a strong interest in the role from the start and, to his credit, engaged with a panoply of complex data protection and privacy issues that are being driven and internationally defined by EU legislation.

In a bittersweet ending, Murphy’s tenure ended on a high point with a big conference last week. The well-attended Conference Centre event, organised by his department, attracted a roster of major national and international speakers. My only quibble: if it becomes – as it should – an annual event, it should aim for more balanced speaker participation from civil society and data privacy organisations.

Murphy's position marked the first time any EU country had created a minister with responsibility for data protection. That placed Ireland way ahead of the curve on a subject that has long since transformed beyond a minority interest.

Data protection and privacy are defining elements of international trade agreements. In the case of the joint US/EU Privacy Shield data transfer agreement, they’re the foundation for transatlantic commerce worth billions annually (now shaky due to secretive US data snooping policies).

Business security

Data protection and privacy are major consumer and business security concerns, too. Those areas have been to the forefront of recent EU Court of Justice, Irish Commercial Court and US court cases and judgments.

Ireland, with its high concentration of multinational technology companies, is now and will continue to be uniquely placed as a globally attractive business location. But critically, and correctly, one with a particularly high level of international focus on its data protection stance.

That stance should be a leadership role. Not only is this the right ethical position to take, but it offers a beckoning economic and global policy opportunity for the country. Economic, because – despite what cynics say – big companies still prefer regulatory regimes with stability and balanced policy to uncertainty and lax oversight.

In addition, recent ECJ rulings mean privacy will need to be more inbuilt in services and products than ever before. That’s going to produce market opportunities for new offerings from established companies as well as start-ups.

As a neutral EU country with a close historical and business relationship with the US, Ireland also could be a global data protection policy creator and influencer. No, we haven’t always done well at this. Just look at the government’s reluctance to properly re-legislate, after the sloppy Irish implementation of data retention caused the entire EU Data Retention Directive to be thrown out by the ECJ in 2014.

But, with international eyes on us (thanks to being a business target destination, and those several groundbreaking, Irish-originating, EU and US legal cases), we could – and should – be leading in this area.

All of this is why Enda Kenny was politically astute, at both the Irish and global level, to have created Murphy's ministry. And why it is so shortsighted for new Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to axe the role and mash its responsibilities into yet another hideous Twister ministry, where junior Ministers contort to place each hand and foot in a different-coloured policy circle.

Now, even more so than when the role was created, data protection and privacy deserve better ministerial attention than this precarious balancing act.