This week Simon Harris relinquished his role as Minister for Justice, as Helen McEntee returned from her maternity leave. He had been an unusually vocal Ministerial stand-in, enjoying the opportunity beloved of all FG politicians to say things that warm the cockles of hearts wrapped in blue shirts, worn as either part of their uniform or just as a political choice.
(Ministers for Justice should not be dismissed as a mere appendix to their Department. Historically, the office holders have acted more like the gall bladder, alternating between a place for the storage of bile and just having rocks rattling around inside them, depending on the occupant of the office.)
One of his declared priorities was to push through legislation to allow for... well, it wasn't exactly clear what he wanted, but it seemed as though he was looking to legislate for Gardaí to wear body cams linked to a real-time facial recognition system and database.
This idea has proved attractive in other jurisdictions up to the moment it is actually deployed in real life and starts accusing random people of being criminals. Well, I say random, but in fact there is a very strong correlation between misidentification by these systems and being black. Racial bias is part of the whole deal.
The actual crime-fighting usefulness of this technology can be gauged by the comment by the Chief of Police in Detroit who remarked that "If we were just to use the technology by itself, to identify someone...I would say 96% of the time it would misidentify."
Nonetheless, Ireland's police are convinced that Shelbyville have got the drop on them with their new-fangled crime-cameras and they're only desperate for the chance to see if they can buy the surveillance equivilent of a monorail as well.
Harris found himself facing two forms of resistance to his project. His plan was illegal and it also proved politically impossible to implement. Finding himself lashed to a basically failed project as it went under, he took a page out of the Brexiteer handbook. He declared he had been stopped by a shadowy group of people. The enemies of the forces of law and order? People Behind Desks.
Throughout his months in office, Minister Harris continued to fail to bring in a law to allow a surveillance form so illegal the European Data Protection Board has already assessed it and found;
“remote processing of biometric data in public spaces for identification purposes fail to strike a fair balance between the competing private and public interests, thus constituting a disproportionate interference with the data subject’s rights under Articles 7 and 8 of the Charter.”
The Minister (as the avatar for his Department) reacted in two ways. He started to vary the description of what he was trying to propose. We went from his predecessor's statement that the systems would be used to 'identify suspects in crowds' to a desperate effort to try to conflate just recording video on body cams (an activity nobody is objecting to) with the facial recognition element. At one stage he nonsensically complained that the Gardaí were, somehow, prevented from recording video with cameras, unlike everyone one else.
Politically, the Green Party were the primary block to the law proceeding. They're a coalition party, so their position can't be just ignored. But similarly, it would be a bad look for the Minister to start attacking his Government colleagues.
Hence: The People Behind Desks.
Taking a leaf from the Michael Gove Brexit line that people were sick of listening to Experts, the Minister's reuse of the same strange formulation of words to describe his opponents invites us to try to work out who are these political powerhouses, with their menacing horizontal wooden surfaces?
If we think they must be the people who aren't the Green Party, but have objected to the introduction of live Facial Recognition Technology as part of an amendment to an existing bill, we can presume he means lawyers, academics, technologists. Basically, people who might have some expertise in the subject he's attempting to legislate for.
As someone who owns a horizontal piece of wood, behind which I sometimes sit, I can confirm that being located behind a desk is not a method of assuring infallibility. Nor, however, is it a location which ensures that I am wrong until I stand up and step away.
People Behind Desks are not arguing desk cathedra. They don't assert their deskyness as the source of their expertise. Instead they make arguments based on citing laws, and facts and surveys and so on.
It's those arguments which the Minister spent his brief time in office avoiding, because he had no answer to them.
On her arrival back into her job this week, Minister McEntee acknowledged that she was abandoning the plans for live Facial Recognition.
It would be worthwhile if she could persuade her Department that proceeding with a law that could actually pass and stand up to legal scrutiny would be a better use of her remaining time in office than continuing her predecessor's futile furniture-based line of argument.