It was with a subtle yet unmistakable hint of triumph that Tánaiste Mícheál Martin announced in the Dáil in January that 2022 had been “an exceptionally busy year” for the passport office. The continued increase in passport application numbers, far from an aberration, is part of a wider trend which has been observed since 2016 and which can not be explained by a mere increase in the number of Irish people wishing to travel abroad. What is behind it then?
The reason most often given is a familiar one: Brexit. The increase in Irish passport applications coincides neatly with the UK’s decision to leave the EU and there is plenty of evidence that suggests that this is as likely to be causation as it is a correlation. According to figures released by the Department of Foreign Affairs in 2021 the number of Irish passports issued to British applicants rose from 16,900 in 2017 to 46,800 in 2020.
Before one can apply for an Irish passport however, one must first be an Irish citizen, and figures relating to applications for this legal status have been, if anything, even more striking. Records from the Department of Justice show that the number of people from Britain granted Irish citizenship rose from 54 in 2015 to 1,191 in 2021.
This figure becomes even more striking when one takes into account that it does not include anyone born in the UK to a parent born in Ireland, as these individuals are citizens by default and need not go through the application process. This essentially means that applications for citizenship from the UK are now increasingly being made by young, third-generation Irish immigrants coming of age in a post-Brexit world. For them to gain citizenship, they must be included in the foreign births registry, either because they have Irish-born grandparents or because their parent was an Irish citizen at the time of their birth but was not born on the island of Ireland. Suffice to say that the process of applying to be included in the register is even more difficult than trying to get one’s head around who is actually eligible. The directions provided by the Department of Foreign Affairs on its website require the submission of no less than ten documents relating to the applicant or their relatives, many of which must be witnessed, certified or original copies. Yet the applications keep coming.
A new generation
The reality is that these are young people entering third-level education or the workforce in a very different world to that which they might have expected prior to the Brexit referendum and who appear, as a result, more willing to undertake the arduous process of applying for Irish citizenship through their grandparents. Trinity News spoke to two students, living, studying, and born in the UK who have completed the process of obtaining Irish citizenship. Emma, born in England but a long-time resident in Scotland applied for citizenship through her Irish grandparents and waited almost two years between 2016 and 2018 for her application to be processed. Ellie, born in Oxford but with a grandmother from Limerick, had a substantially shorter wait between her application in February 2022 and her receiving citizenship in March 2023 — but still felt the inconvenience of hunting down original copies of her grandmother’s birth certificate, not to mention the €278 cost of completing the application process.
“Both had long known about the possibility of their becoming Irish citizens and had had a connection with the country from a young age.”
Neither, however, had any doubts about applying or regret in any way their decision to do so. Both had long known about the possibility of their becoming Irish citizens and had had a connection with the country from a young age. Ellie tells me that a large part of her family still lives in the Republic and that even without Brexit, she probably would have applied for citizenship “as a personal thing. It makes me feel closer to my grandmother”. Emma, whose mother still very much identifies as Irish, had been aware of her entitlement for as long as she can remember. Still, even for her “the pushing point was definitely Brexit…Finally, there was a reason to do the admin.” She’s not the only one either, and when I ask her whether she knows anyone else who is completing the application process, there’s no hesitation in her response “right off the top of my head I know 5 people,” she tells me.
A doorway into Europe
The practical motivations for their decisions however, have somewhat less to do with Ireland itself and somewhat more to do with the country’s membership of the European Union. Apart from the obvious advantage of skipping the queues at airports — “I only travel with my Irish passport,” Emma tells — there are also many practical benefits to Irish, and thus EU, citizenship which attract those attempting to further their education or career prospects. Both Emma and Ellie were among the first cohort of British students excluded from the Erasmus exchange programme and instead studied in Europe through the UK’s new Turing scheme.
“The ability to work and reside visa and work permit-free in Europe is another opportunity that will appeal to many British people with Irish citizenship.”
However, this experience has only increased their desire to take advantage of the opportunities which Europe has to offer. Ellie expresses an interest in moving to France where she will be able to avail of a master’s programme at the reduced fees offered to EU students thanks to her Irish citizenship. International students, a grouping that now includes applicants from the UK, are often required to pay much higher fees in European universities. Undergraduate fees too are lower across Europe for EU students and it seems inevitable that more and more students from the UK, where fees are on the rise, will be looking back into their family trees in an attempt to root out an opportunity to study cheaply in countries such as the Netherlands which offers extensive English language tuition options. The ability to work and reside visa and work permit-free in Europe is another opportunity that will appeal to many British people with Irish citizenship. These advantages, which are less relevant to Ireland as a country with many anterior agreements with the UK, nevertheless make Irish citizenship an extremely attractive door into a European community from which British youths have been locked out by Brexit.
Citizenship and Irishness
However, despite its broader implications in an increasingly interconnected Europe, citizenship is still a concept that weighs heavily on questions of identity. “The fact that I’ve had to [apply for Irish citizenship] has made me think differently about England,” Ellie tells me, noting that Brexit made her reconsider a lot of things about her British identity. While Emma doesn’t “reject” her Britishness, she says the process of obtaining citizenship has affirmed her Irish identity. “I feel more justified in my feeling Irish,” she tells me, relieved, it seems, that a sentiment she has held since childhood now, at last, has some supporting documentation. Ellie concurs “When I get the passport,” she says, “I will feel like I’m from two places”. By means of the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU, Irish citizenship has, for many young British people, gone from a formality that they may complete to a necessity that they definitely will. Ireland has become a means to the ends offered by mainland Europe and will continue to act as such for a long time to come.