The number of Irish passports being issued in the North has surpassed their UK counterparts for the first time on record, newly obtained figures reveal.
Her Majesty's Passport Office in London has confirmed 48,555 citizens in Northern Ireland applied for a UK passport in 2020 – at least 356 fewer than those who opted for an Irish passport the same year (48,911).
Official figures on Irish passports in the region are only available for those issued through Northern Ireland Passport Express (NIPX), available through post offices, and do not include citizens who apply for their passports directly from Dublin.
The fresh records, released under Freedom of Information laws, confirm an escalating trend over recent years in rising applications for Irish passports, as numbers opting to carry a UK passport wane.
The year after the UK opted to pull out of the EU in the Brexit referendum marked a sharp turn towards people in the North preferring to travel on Irish passports.
Figures for 2021 – as Northern Ireland commemorated its centenary amid plane-grounding travel restrictions as a result of the pandemic – show UK passport applications (63,774) eclipsed Irish passports (56,709) again.
However, available data for this year, as international travel restrictions are lifted, suggest a potential shift under way.
In January, London processed 6,148 UK passport applications for the North, an average of 198 a day.
Applications for an Irish passport, through NIPX and online only, numbered 24,643 during January and February – or 419 every day, more than double the UK passport figure.
Both UK and Irish passports last 10 years before expiring.
Aggregate figures for the past decade suggest significantly more people still hold UK passports in the region, albeit against the backdrop of a shifting trend.
Last month, The Irish Times revealed more than a third of the North’s population currently hold an Irish passport, with at least 660,427 issued between 2012 to February this year – about 35 per cent of the region’s 1.8 million population.
Over the same period, but only up to January this year, 1,070,518 UK passports were issued, accounting for 59 per cent of the population.
Under the Belfast Agreement, both London and Dublin recognise the right of citizens born in the North to identify as either Irish, British or both. The birthright to dual citizenship allows people to carry both Irish and UK passports.
Some unionist observers and politicians have suggested the surge in Irish passports being issued in the North was down to an increasing pragmatism since the UK withdrew from the EU.
An Irish passport allows the holder to travel freely within the EU.
But Prof Colin Harvey, of the school of law at Queen's University Belfast, suggests the "significant evolving" trend signals something deeper afoot in the region.
“These figures are significant but not surprising – they are indicative of evolving trends in the North,” he said.
"In some sense it reaffirms the Good Friday agreement, around the right to be British, Irish or both. But it is suggestive of the fact that people are availing of that guarantee, which is unsurprising in a post-Brexit context, where Irish citizenship also means European Union citizenship."
“Ultimately, Northern Ireland was removed from the EU against its will. There is an attachment to the EU as well and the benefits that flow from European Union citizenship too.
“Any future Border poll will also be a referendum on re-entry to the EU, as the EU has made clear that the North would automatically re-enter in a vote for constitutional change. It would be a vote about the North, yes, but also a vote about a united Ireland within the EU.”
The latest figures also bolster calls for the Irish Government to open a dedicated Irish passport office in the North, he suggests.
“There is clearly a demand and appetite there for it, fuelled really by Brexit,” said Prof Harvey.