What is driving increased demand for Irish passports?

Brexit is not the only factor behind the recent surge in applications for the harp

The Irish passport is ‘a representation of a real Irish person’, according to Fiona Penollar, who  heads the Passport Service. Photograph: Frank Miller

The Irish passport is ‘a representation of a real Irish person’, according to Fiona Penollar, who heads the Passport Service. Photograph: Frank Miller


Lefortovo Prison in Moscow is named after a close ally of Tsar Peter The Great. During Stalin’s “Great Purge” in the late 1930s it served as a torture chamber for his secret police, the NKVD.

Today, it is home to Paul Whelan, an ex-US Marine who legally holds US, Irish, Canadian and British passports, but who now stands accused there of espionage.

Whelan, who served two tours in Iraq with the Marines and now works as the security director for a Michigan-based automotive parts supplier, could face a 20-year sentence, if convicted.

Paul Whelan, an ex-US Marine, legally holds US, Irish, Canadian and British passports.
Paul Whelan, an ex-US Marine, legally holds US, Irish, Canadian and British passports.

Since his arrest, he has received consular assistance from each of the four countries from whom he holds passports, including an Irish Embassy official in Moscow who attended his court hearing.

Equally, however, it has prompted conversations about the future image of the harped-embossed Irish passport, particularly given its popularity in the United Kingdom following the Brexit referendum.

The headlines have been numerous: “Number of British people becoming Irish citizens surges,” “More than 158,000 UK applications for Irish passports this year”, just to mention a few.

However, the reality is more complicated.

Yes, Irish passports are more popular with those who never knew they could qualify. But the majority of the extra demand is coming from the Irish at home, now able, again, to consider foreign holidays.

So far, the Government sees the rise in applications from Britain positively. “That surge has illustrated that EU citizenship matters, not least to those who are at risk of losing it,” said Minister for Justice, Charlie Flanagan.

Last year, Foreign Affairs’s Passport Office issued 862,415 passports and identity cards in 2018, significantly up from 779,000 passports in 2017 and 733,000 in 2016.

Prized possession

The Irish passport is regarded as the world’s seventh most prized, according to the Henley Passport Index, because it offers visa-free travel to 184 countries around the globe.

Brexit is fuelling applications from Northern Ireland, however. In 2017, there were 81,752, an increase of almost 20 per cent on 2016. Last year, it rose again, but less dramatically, to 84,855.

In 2017, 81,287 people living in England, Scotland and Wales applied for an Irish passport, up 28 per cent on 2016. Last year, that number rose again – up by 22 per cent to 98,544.

Half of all of the applications from people living in Northern Ireland were from first-timers; but the percentage of first-timers from Britain was lower, standing at 39 per cent.

Some 47 per cent of applications in 2017 from Britain came from people who were born in Ireland; 37 per cent came from the children of Irish emigrants.

Just 7 per cent, despite some commentary, qualified under the grandparent rule.

A year previously, a breakdown showed that 55 per cent of British applications came from the Irish-born, 38 per cent were the children of emigrants. Some 4 per cent qualified under the grandparent rule.

In 2008, the number of applications from Britain and the rest of the world – not including Northern Ireland – stood at 68,829. In 2009, it hit 74,187; a year later it went to 86,386.

In 2011, it dropped back to 82,783, before falling over the next three years to 67,285 in 2014. Since then, however, it has risen. In 2016 – the year of the UK’s referendum – it hit 79,670. In 2017, it reached 87,471. Last year, 96,261 applied.

However, a not-insignificant percentage of the increase in applications from abroad is explained by Irish emigrants seeking passports for their children – born out of Ireland after their parents were forced to emigrate after 2009.

In 2008, the number of children’s applications stood at 8,434. A year later, it rose to 13,132. In 2010, it climbed to 17,069, and rose by a further 800 in 2011. A year later, children’s applications fell back to 15,222, and in 2013, to 14,887. Since 2015, the numbers have steadily risen, to 17,312 last year.


Under Ireland’s rules, foreigners can apply for citizenship if a grandparent was born in Ireland; or if one of their parents was an Irish citizen at the time of the applicant’s birth, even though they were not born in Ireland.

Such applications have increased since 2008. They have doubled since the Brexit referendum, though, when probed, the numbers are lower than public commentary might suggest.

In 2008, 6,683 applied for a place on the Foreign Births Register held by Foreign Affairs. The number fell to 5,840 in 2009; to 4,634 in 2010, before rising slightly to 4,689 in 2011.

It fell back again in 2012 to 4,335, and to 4,147 in 2013, before rising to 4,385 in 2014 and to 4,421 in 2015. However, matters have changed since 2016, most likely explained by Brexit.

That year, applications rose to 5,920. In 2017, it jumped sharply to 10,653, following by another significant increase last year to 12,309, according to official numbers.

If the numbers of applications from people living in Britain has increased steadily over the past few years, the situation for those living in the United States is more nuanced.

Numbers from there have oscillated since 2008. Then, 13,943 passports were issued to people living there under all categories: renewals, the children of Irish emigrants and grandparent-rule applicants.

Thereafter, numbers shifted up and down between 11,000 and 12,000 until 2015 when it rose to 13,484, of whom 7,328 were the descendants of long-ago emigrants.

A year later, the US numbers rose to 16,148, including 9,257 grandparent-rule applications; in 2017, it rose to 19,358, but the number seeking to qualify under the grandparent rule jumped sharply to 11,727.

Last year, however, the flow abated somewhat. In all, there were 14,579 applications from the US for new passports, renewals, including 8,900 under the descendants rule.

Foreign holidays

Taking a calm view of the rise, Fiona Penollar, who now heads the Passport Service, said the increased popularity of the Irish passport was only partially driven by Brexit fears.

Instead, more Irish people, having recovered from the economic crash, are going on foreign holidays: “You would see more people who let their passport lapse for a few years and now the whole family are applying.”

Meanwhile, the figures are being skewed, too, since the change to biometric passports in the mid-2000s means many people are also due a passport renewal, Penollar told The Irish Times.

“The percentage increase for applications from Great Britain and Northern Ireland are actually but a small fraction. The driver of the increase is within Ireland.”

Numerically, Brexit is not “having a huge impact”, she argues, though the debate about its ramifications has encouraged many in Ireland to place more value on the document.

Rising numbers has not caused delays, she insists, helped by online applications, with passports arriving within 10 working days. However, more staff have been hired.


The increasing popularity of the passport for people living in Britain is not tied to any emotional connection with Ireland, says Prof Mary Gilmartin from Maynooth University.

Faced with the threat of future EU travel restrictions and uncertainty around their status in the UK, those with a claim to Irish citizenship there are “strategically choosing security”, she says.

Meaning of Irishness

In her 2018 paper, Irish Enough: Changing narratives of citizenship and national identity in the context of Brexit, Gilmartin argued that Brexit has both “opened up and closed off” the different meanings of Irishness while reshaping the “meaning and utility of Irish citizenship” for British people.

Since the 2004 citizenship referendum, Irish citizenship is granted to children born in Ireland only if one parent is an Irish citizen, or entitled to citizenship, at the time of their birth.

Citizenship is not awarded to children born in Ireland to non-Irish citizens – rules that have created a system of rights that “primarily favoured ancestry over residence”, she writes.

“That’s the fundamental problem in how we understand citizenship,” says Gilmartin, “Who we think of as Irish isn’t necessarily who gets formally recognised as Irish.”

Ireland does not offer quick citizenship for wealthy investors, unlike countries such as Malta and Cyprus. But five-year residency visas are available to those investing more than €2 million. Afterwards, they can apply for Irish citizenship.

Michael Parker, managing director of Insight Communications, opposes passports-for-investment citizenship schemes: “Our passport has always been seen as neutral and Irish citizenship is a very valuable thing.

“But if someone wants to come and set up a business, they have to go through the same system of qualifications as anyone else,” says Parker, who has worked with Indians interested in the residency visa offering.

“The Government has made it very clear that citizenship isn’t on the table. You can sell residency or an ability to work and live here; I think that’s a good scheme for the country. Not an automatic route to a passport.”

Arguing that the generally understood definition of “Irishness” is changing, Fiona Penollar says the designs and poetry currently decorating the Irish passport recognise the different cultures existing among citizens.

“It’s literally that being Irish is not about a place or a look, it’s about a feeling and, of course, about having citizenship. Ireland is a changing word and being Irish is a changing thing.

“That’s brilliant, it’s alive and vibrant. To me the passport is absolutely a symbol of that. It’s a representation of a real Irish person,” Penollar declares passionately.