Seanadóir Niall Ó Donnghaile: Passport office in the North ‘a necessity’
The recent disruption of passport services for Irish citizens in the North has served to emphasise that the establishment of a new public passport office is a necessity, writes Sinn Féin Seanadóir Niall Ó Donnghaile.
Six years ago, when I was first elected to the Seanad, I set an overall objective of bringing the Seanad to the North and the North to the Seanad. I did that in several ways, including by raising issues in the Seanad chamber, almost daily, which were pertinent to the impact of partition on the people of the North in particular, and the people of Ireland generally.
In taking this approach I was mindful that the nationalist people of the North lived, for almost 100 years, in a state that used its formidable resources – political and military – to discriminate against them and deprive them of their economic, political, and cultural rights. In practice, this removed people to the margins of political life and excluded them from all vestiges of rights as citizens of the state.
I was also mindful that very often the nationalist people of the North have, since partition, looked to the Oireachtas and Dublin, as a political and emotional home. Unfortunately, most Irish governments – through indifference – assisted in that exclusion, certainly until the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, which effectively placed the Irish Government as a joint guarantor with the British Government over the North.
Against this background, it made sense to identify challenges faced by the people of the North and lobby for those challenges to be resolved in such a way that the people of the North who wanted to feel part of the Irish nation, in line with their right under Article 2 of Bunreacht na hÉireann, could do so.
Passport Service office
Campaigning for a public passport office is a very practical expression of inclusion with respect to the all the people of the North. And by all, I mean all. Since Brexit, more and more people from a unionist background are applying for an Irish passport.
Opening a new, dedicated Irish passport office in the North is simply common sense.
Given the continued and significant increase in applications coming from the North of Ireland, people often need support and interaction when they are first-time applicants, or are applying for renewals and replacement documents. They should be able to do so in their nearby community.
Citing the Royal Mail postal strike, the Passport Service’s recent decision to temporarily suspend (from 12 December 2022 until 25 January 2023) the posting of passports and documentation to the North, was disgraceful and added an unfair burden on applicants.
If there was a passport office in the North, people there would have an accessible office convenient to them. They would be saved both the disruption and additional costs caused by the current unfair arrangements.
Last year, 2022, was another record-breaking year in terms of applications from the Six Counties, with over 128,000 applications, 50,000 of which were first-time applications.
It is clear there is a huge demand for passports from people in all constituencies across the North of Ireland. Having a passport office there would provide crucial resources to enable the system to cut waiting times and increase the quality of the service for applicants. It would also provide additional jobs locally.
It is increasingly clear that having an office in the North is a necessity. The Irish Government must stop dragging its heels on this issue. It is time to end the delay and start planning to open an office soon. I will continue to campaign for a passport office for the North until one is opened.
Passport Service comment
Asked for a response to the Seanadóir’s criticism of the disruption to its service, the Passport Service said: “As a result of national strike action by staff at the UK Royal Mail postal service during the month of December 2022, the Passport Service took contingency action to minimise disruption for customers. As part of these measures, the Passport Service temporarily suspended the dispatch by post of passports and supporting documentation to Great Britain and Northern Ireland, to avoid passports being affected significantly by the resulting disruptions to Royal Mail postal services. “This contingency action allowed the Passport Service to issue urgently required passports to customers by alternate means, where those passports may not otherwise have been received in time for travel due to the Royal Mail disruptions. It also mitigated against the risk of data protection breaches and potential fraud, which could have arisen from the misplacement of passports. “The Passport Service immediately updated its website to inform customers of the temporary measures and encouraged customers who required their passport urgently to contact the Customer Service Hub to make arrangements to receive their passport by alternative means. The Passport Service closely monitored the situation with Royal Mail services throughout and resumed dispatch of passports to Northern Ireland on 23 January 2023. Before the resumption of service, the Passport Service issued urgently required passports to over 1,700 applicants based in Northern Ireland and Great Britain through alternate means.”