Staff in the Passport Service will effectively double by January next year when up to 1.7 million applications are expected, according to Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney.
As complaints continue to be made about a major backlog in processing applications, Mr Coveney said in the Dáil that a recruitment drive by the end of January next year would bring total staff to 920 – the “highest staffing level ever”.
Mr Coveney acknowledged that in about 7 per cent of passport applications, delivery dates went beyond the expected timeline and he said increased staff numbers would deal with this. He said more than half a million passports had been issued to date this year and 45 per cent of online renewals were issued within a week.
The Minister told the Dáil there were currently 108,000 applications being processed, 34,000 or 35 per cent of applications were incomplete and sometimes applicants took “weeks and sometimes months to submit” the required documentation.
Next year, 1.3-1.7 million applications are expected from people who “didn’t look at their passport for 18 months”, and are planning to travel in 2022.
During Dáil question time, Mr Coveney said the processing of a backlog of more than 32,000 foreign birth registrations resumed on Monday after an 18-month pause blamed on the Covid-19 pandemic, when passport office staff were redeployed to essential services.
Foreign birth registration applications are citizenship applications and the Minister said the system had remained open for emergency cases and more than 5,000 such applications, including those of stateless persons, were dealt with.
Before the pandemic, however, processing took 18 months due to the “unprecedented surge” in applications following the Brexit referendum.
Sinn Féin foreign affairs spokesman John Brady said there was "massive frustration" prior to the lockdown, when the waiting time was about 18 months.
“We’re now being told it could take up to two years to process those applications,” said Mr Brady.
He said many people put in their application prior to the lockdown and had heard nothing since. “Are we now saying those people have to wait another two years on top of the two years that have already been lost?”
Mr Coveney said of the two-year figure, “that’s new to me”, but Mr Brady said it was reported from the department on Monday that it would take two years to process the applications.
The Minister said the Passport Service had to ensure a very careful analysis with “rigorous checks” across systems to verify the identity of the applicant and their entitlement to be an Irish citizen but they were “effectively doubling staffing in the passport office to get on top of that”.
Foreign birth registrations are processed for those seeking Irish citizenship through “descent”. If an applicant’s grandparent was born in Ireland or if their parent was an Irish citizen at the time of the applicant’s birth, even if not born in Ireland, they can become an Irish citizen.
Once the birth is registered through the Department of Foreign Affairs, the person can apply for a passport.
In a parliamentary reply to Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy, the Minister said the resumption of services would involve dealing with the backlog from 133 countries across the world.
The largest number of applications are from England at 16,093, followed by the US with 7,815, Scotland with 1,512 and 1,004 from Australia.
Ms Murphy said that before the pandemic, her office might receive an occasional passport query, perhaps one every two months. Now there are passport queries every day. “They’re routine now,” she said.
Mr Coveney told Sinn Féin TD Martin Browne that an Oireachtas call centre service was put in place to fast track emergency cases which TDs and Senators had been asked to deal with. A limit of five emergency cases a week was increased to 15 after negative feedback.
Current processing times are 10 working days for simple adult online renewals, 15 working days for complex or child online renewals, 40 working days for first-time online applications and eight weeks for postal applications.