Nice and neutral: why Irish passports are a spook's best friend


The use of Irish passports in the execution of a Hamas figure in Dubai may have surprised, but it has always been a popular document, writes TOM CLONAN

AS TRAVEL documents – fake or otherwise – Irish passports are highly prized by a wide and disparate range of groups and individuals. Col Oliver North is believed to have travelled to Iran on a forged Irish passport in 1986, during the Iran-Contra affair.

It is widely acknowledged in intelligence and security circles that fake Irish passports have been used by both CIA and Mossad agents travelling throughout the Middle East and Africa. Exploiting Ireland’s reputation as a neutral state with little or no colonial baggage, it is believed that international intelligence agencies have on numerous occasions employed false Irish passports as cover for spies and agents transiting through territories otherwise hostile to powerful nations such as the United States or Britain.

International terrorist organisations are also known to have used forged Irish passports in the past. Members of the Provisional IRA are believed to have used fake passports during the 1970s and 1980s on trips to Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East as part of their endeavours to source weapons and explosives during the Troubles. More recently, as minister for justice, Michael McDowell alleged that members of the Colombia Three had travelled to South America on forged Irish passports.

Genuine or legitimately held Irish passports are also the envy of international journalists operating in hostile environments such as Iraq and Afghanistan. As foreign correspondents, Patrick Cockburn of the London Independent, Maggie O’Kane of the Guardianand Orla Guerin of the BBC have all reported from war zones while travelling on their Irish passports.

Cockburn has cited at least one occasion in Iraq where the possession of an Irish passport probably saved his life. He produced it when taken at gunpoint from his car by Sunni insurgents on the outskirts of Fallujah in 2004, and was released unharmed. Many international journalists operating in war-torn countries where militant Islamism is a feature regard holders of Irish, Swiss and Swedish passports as fortunate, in that their perceived neutrality confers upon them some measure of protection. Unfortunately, many journalists acknowledge that US and British passports can often provoke hostility in parts of the Middle East and Asia, as a consequence of the US and Britain’s participation in the so-called War on Terror.

The current Irish passport is a machine-readable electronic ePassport which contains a biometric chip for security purposes. It also incorporates a range of other security features, including holograms and a greyscale digitally printed photograph of the passport holder.

It is fully consistent with the security requirements of the US visa waiver programme. The currently configured Irish passport – while considered highly desirable by legitimate users, terrorists and international security agencies alike – is no easier or more difficult to forge than other EU or US passports.

It is significant to note that the five forged Irish passports used in Dubai in January were all dated prior to 2005 – the new security-enhanced Irish passport was first issued in October 2006.

The sheer volume of forged passports estimated to have been involved in the execution of Hamas’s Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai last month suggests that state assets – rather than criminal or terrorist elements – were employed in their manufacture and forgery.

Whatever the outcome of the investigations into the affair, one unfortunate outcome will be the closer and perhaps hostile scrutiny that Irish citizens travelling abroad on genuine Irish passports may be subjected to at foreign airports and points of entry in the coming weeks.

Dr Tom Clonan is the Irish TimesSecurity Analyst. He lectures in the School of Media at DIT