London embassy ‘stretched’ by passport demand ahead of Brexit

Irish embassy received 55,000 emails about passports in two months last year

The passport division of the Irish embassy in London has warned that it is “stretched and working under pressure” and that staffing levels “are not sufficient” to meet the rising number of applications ahead of Brexit.

Correspondence between the Department of Foreign Affairs and the embassy, released under the Freedom of Information Act, indicates that there has been rising pressure on officials at the embassy despite assertions from the Dublin passport office that a new online system is speeding up the system.

Between September and November last year, the embassy’s passport office received more than 55,000 emails, including queries on technical issues when applying online for passports, failed online applications, undelivered passports and damaged passports, the documents show.

A report sent from London to the department’s management board in November warned that there had “not been a major drop off in the number of UK applications to the counter in Cromwell Road despite online renewals”.

In an email dated November 27th, 2018, Irish Ambassador to the UK Adrian O’Neill said the move to online applications would not “necessarily result in a commensurate freeing up of resources in London”.

In another email, a passport officer writes that “extensive media coverage of Brexit” is adding to the embassy’s workload and that requests from the Irish community in Britain were increasing.

The UK is due to leave the European Union on March 29th and as it stands, there is little clarity as to what its future relationship with the bloc will be. This has increased interest among people living in Britain with Irish links in obtaining an Irish passport in order to allow them continued full access to the EU.

One in six claim

The number of passport applications received by the embassy has almost doubled in recent years, rising from 46,229 in 2015 to 91,623 in the 11 months to the end of last November.

It is estimated that one in six people in Britain could be entitled to claim Irish citizenship.

To date, around 20 per cent of those who are eligible to claim Irish citizenship appear to have done so. However, an increase in this number to 40 or 60 per cent would require an 18 to 36 per cent increase in overall staffing levels in 2019, according to the Department.

A total of 98,544 people living in England, Scotland and Wales applied for Irish passports last year, up 22 per cent on 2017. Last year, 862,415 passports and identity cards were issued.

So far this year, 10,833 people in Britain have been issued Irish passports, up from 7,076 during the same period last year. Some 10,796 people in Northern Ireland have been issued passports, up from 7,519 last year. A total of 92,301 people have received Irish passports so far this year, up from 73,894 during the first six weeks of last year.

A departmental forecast estimates that 2.1 million people are eligible for immediate applications – 800,000 in Britain and 1.3 million in the North – up to 2023. It cautions that about 4.4 per cent of the 1.2 million UK citizens living across the EU may also be eligible for Irish passports.

While a decision last May to redirect all postal applications for passports to the Cork office had somewhat reduced the workload, the embassy underlined that it was still receiving 60 per cent of all British postal applications.

The embassy requests that the department arrange for at least three temporary clerical officers to assist the embassy in its passport requests. It warns that staffing levels “are not sufficient” to cover the “blocks of work” in the passport division.

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast