Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Departmental Appointments

Thomas Gould

Question:

6. Deputy Thomas Gould asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the status of the process of securing a special envoy for freedom of expression. [47113/21]

I was looking for an update on the status of the process of securing a special envoy for freedom of expression.

I am glad to answer this question. I have asked my Department to undertake a review of the role and appointment of special envoys, given the public commentary and debate on this issue in recent weeks. It is anticipated that the review will be completed by mid-October because I have asked that it be a priority. The recommendations of that review will inform policy regarding any future special envoy appointments by Government. No consideration will be given to appointing any special envoys in any policy area until that review is complete and until I have had the opportunity to consider its recommendations.

I need to re-establish the credibility of appointing special envoys. We have two effective special envoys working for us, but what has happened in recent weeks has undermined public confidence and confidence in this House between parties in the appointment of and potential roles of special envoys. I need to fix that and we will do that with this work. The Taoiseach has been clear, and I agree with him, that as part of that work we will ensure any future special envoy appointments will involve a competitive and transparent process for how people are invited to apply for those roles. I will happily come back to the Deputy when I have the recommendations from that work. We will take it forward then with credibility.

While there is no specific number of LGBTQIA community members in this State, the Oireachtas research team estimates that there could be up to 500,000 people in the community in the State. Many of them were probably heartened to hear that the position of a special envoy for their freedom of expression was a priority for the Government and were disappointed when it fell through. Last night we were talking about Afghanistan and about the impact of the Taliban taking over, especially on women and girls but also on the LGBTQIA community. Many of those people have gone into hiding and are fearing for their lives. The position of a special envoy, not alone in Ireland or Afghanistan but globally, is one that is worth filling.

I also believe it is worthwhile, which is why I was looking to create the position and appoint somebody suitable to it. Many other countries are doing this and they have been doing so for quite some time. We were simply looking at what other countries were doing, trying to get value for money and trying to put skilled people into positions where they could advocate internationally from an Irish perspective. That is what special envoys do. They are not normal employees of the Department per se because they are normally asked to do a specific job in a specific timeframe for the Government to raise the profile of a certain area. Most European and western countries use this tool and regularly appoint special envoys, including our neighbours to the east and west. US President Biden has appointed a special envoy specifically for the promotion of LGBTQ rights this year. That is what we wanted to do but it clearly did not work out too well. People know why that was and so a review is under way to fix that issue. It is hoped we will be able to use the important tool of special envoys in the future and with more credibility.

An awful lot of people would be qualified to carry out the role of special envoy and would be interested in doing so. Sometimes we need to look outside the box of the usual suspects. A special envoy in this specific case for the LGBTQIA community is such an important role and it sends out such an important signal of how the Government considers that community and how it wants to support members of that community. We know there is a huge amount of discrimination against that community in Ireland and across the globe, and for them to know there is a voice there and someone advocating for them is worthwhile.

Ireland has been a template for many of other countries to follow in how attitudes towards minority groups here have changed, particularly the LGBTQ+ community and the way in which we had a public conversation and citizen's assembly on the issue. We passed a referendum to change the status of same-sex marriage and so on. These are things a lot of other countries have taken a lead from. Ireland campaigns internationally in this space and it wants to protect minorities that are vulnerable and blatantly discriminated against, sometimes violently, in certain countries. We want to be and we are a voice for those minorities in other parts of the world where we need to ensure international law applies and discrimination is called out. That is why a special envoy in this space may have been helpful. Even in the absence of that, we have good ambassadors and strong Ministers in this space, as well as many NGOs.

International Relations

James Lawless

Question:

7. Deputy James Lawless asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs his views on whether the recent elections in Russia were free and fair; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46912/21]

I want to ask about the recent elections in Russia. I am shocked and appalled at the increasing despotism of the Russian Government, and even more so of its premier, in the ongoing imprisonment and suppression of opponents, including Alexei Navalny; its support of puppet regimes in eastern Europe; its annexation of territory, including Crimea, on European borders; its interference with elections elsewhere; and its own elections now appearing to be discredited. What is the Minister's view on those events?

The Russian Federation held state Duma, regional and local elections from 17 September to 19 September. On 24 September, the Central Election Commission of the Russian Federation declared that the United Russia party, which supports President Vladimir Putin, had retained its parliamentary majority in the state Duma. I regret that independent and impartial election monitoring was not facilitated by the Russian Government to a satisfactory extent. The decision to restrict severely the size and format of an international OSCE and Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, ODIHR, election observation mission prevented its deployment as an effective and credible observer. Ireland fully aligns with the declaration issued on 20 September on behalf of the EU by the EU High Representative, Josep Borrell, regretting this decision by the Russian Government. The EU declaration also noted an increased crackdown on opposition politicians, civil society organisations, independent media outlets, and journalists. As EU leaders, we called on the Russian Federation to abide by the commitments it has made on the protection of human rights and democratic values.

Several independent reports indicate an intensified electoral crackdown, but space for civil society, media freedom and political opposition has been shrinking for years. The treatment of Alexei Navalny, still detained in a penal colony, is a clear example of this. Ireland and our EU partners have repeatedly called for Mr. Navalny's release. Ireland also does not recognise Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea and does not recognise the so-called elections held there. I also regret Russia's decision to involve residents of the non-government controlled territories of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the elections.

I am glad to hear the Minister's response and it is worth traversing some of those events. In St. Petersburg, not only did we see multiple buses coaching people who in many cases were unidentified to polling stations but we had the phenomenon of doppelganger candidates where the lead opposition candidate was suddenly shadowed on the ballot paper with two or three candidates of extremely similar names, which deliberately caused mass confusion.

The Minister referred to the issue of election monitors being prohibited from entering the country, or certainly being very restricted, meaning they had no meaningful engagement. Also of particular concern are the events in Moscow, the capital city, which has a larger liberal and urban electorate, and where the online polling was first delayed and then flipped in terms of what had been the projections suddenly to return pro-Kremlin numbers. The mayor of Moscow, who was responsible for the events, was seen on a podium chanting Putin's name shortly afterwards.

There has been a school of thought that, post the Cold War, the West was a little overly triumphalist and that contributed to a resurgence of Russian patriotism. Perhaps now, however, we need to assert ourselves again and the West needs to get involved again. Through the Security Council, the European Council or other avenues open to Ireland, we need to make the case for democracy in Russia, as elsewhere.

We do, but being listened to is a different question. We do have to have a relationship with Russia, but we also have to be blunt and consistent in our message, and that message needs to be collective within the EU. It is no secret that Russia looks to develop bilateral relationships with individual EU member states. We need to ensure a collective approach from the EU towards developing a more constructive relationship with Russia on the basis of key principles that we have outlined and reaffirmed many times.

It is important to say that the Government will continue to promote constructive and open engagement with our Russian counterparts. That makes sense. I met with Foreign Minister Lavrov last week in New York, where we had a positive engagement on a series of issues related to the Security Council. Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council and we need to work with it on many issues. Most of the time we ended up talking about Afghanistan. The diplomacy and foreign policy challenge is to have relationships with states, even though you may fundamentally disagree with them on certain matters, to make things happen, particularly in a setting such as the Security Council.

I am glad to hear the Minister is having those discussions with the Kremlin or its foreign minister. I am aware Russia is permanently represented on the Security Council. We have to use whatever influence we have. I appreciate we may get a deaf ear at times, but it is important we seize the opportunity on the Security Council to push that agenda as far as we can.

The other point I will make as to what we can control is that it was especially shameful that Apple and Google - Telegram also, but perhaps it is a less overt and less commercial multinational - collaborated in this deceit because they removed the Navalny smart voting app from the platforms in Russia a week before the election. They colluded in the declaration of Navalny's organisation as extremist and then effectively took instructions from the Kremlin to deactivate those apps. I have written to Deputy Flanagan, as Chairman of the foreign affairs committee, to request that Apple and Google come before our committee to explain those actions. I am particularly concerned, given what we have seen in other votes, not least Brexit and the American elections, about the interference of social media and their platforms in free and fair elections, that these companies seem to have learned no lessons and are now actually propagating this and colluding with Russia. It is especially abhorrent, and I hope these companies come before the foreign affairs committee and that the Government will support me in seeking to take them to task.

Regarding the Apple and Google issue, before polling began, Apple and Google removed jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny's smart voting app from the iOS and Android stores, respectively. Ireland has no special sight of or role in adjudicating on the decisions of multinational companies in different jurisdictions. I do not have access to all the information and considerations which led Apple and Google to make the decisions they did. I am sure, however, that the well-being and safety of their local staff ranked highly in their considerations. The focus should be on the Russian Government and on the laws and intimidating behaviour which allowed it to exercise censorship across a wide variety of media during the elections. Individual companies are placed in difficult positions because of this unacceptable shrinking of media freedom and civil society space. I am not excusing it; I am just saying we do not know the full facts. Certainly, I do not. Perhaps the Deputy has more facts than I have. As a founding member of the Freedom Online Coalition, Ireland believes the human rights we enjoy must be protected online. The Internet and social media have revolutionised the free flow of information and knowledge and have played an important role in documenting human rights violations and abuses.

Passport Services

James Lawless

Question:

8. Deputy James Lawless asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the number of applications for passports by persons from County Kildare that are currently outstanding; his plans to address the backlog; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46911/21]

Dara Calleary

Question:

9. Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the number of applications for passports from County Mayo that are currently outstanding; his plans to address the backlog; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46841/21]

Matt Carthy

Question:

12. Deputy Matt Carthy asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the current backlog for processing passport applications; the backlog in County Monaghan; and the actions his department has taken to address the backlog of passport applications related to the pandemic. [46476/21]

Jennifer Murnane O'Connor

Question:

16. Deputy Jennifer Murnane O'Connor asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the number of applications for passports from counties Carlow and Kilkenny that are currently outstanding; his plans to address the backlog; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47058/21]

Steven Matthews

Question:

19. Deputy Steven Matthews asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if his attention has been drawn to the delay in processing passport applications, in particular first-time passports for children and new citizens; the steps his Department is taking to alleviate this issue; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46209/21]

Michael Moynihan

Question:

29. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the number of applications for passports from County Cork that are currently outstanding; his plans to address the backlog; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47057/21]

Paul McAuliffe

Question:

37. Deputy Paul McAuliffe asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs his plans to reform the Passport Office, given the current backlog of applications; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46884/21]

Barry Cowen

Question:

46. Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the number of applications for passports from counties Offaly and Laois that are currently outstanding; his plans to address the backlog; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47055/21]

Thomas Gould

Question:

49. Deputy Thomas Gould asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs his plans to address passport backlogs in County Cork. [47114/21]

Aindrias Moynihan

Question:

53. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the measures being taken to clear the backlog of passport applications; the measures being taken to improve timelines for issuing of first-time passports; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47115/21]

Michael Ring

Question:

61. Deputy Michael Ring asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the number of outstanding passport applications currently in the Passport Office; when he expects the backlog to be cleared; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47038/21]

Niamh Smyth

Question:

66. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs when the public offices of the Passport Office in Dublin and Cork will reopen in order that persons can make an appointment to submit a passport application in person; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46780/21]

John Lahart

Question:

77. Deputy John Lahart asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the number of applications for passports by persons from Dublin city and county that are currently outstanding; his plans to address the backlog; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46882/21]

Rose Conway-Walsh

Question:

81. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the status of and position on the turnaround times for and backlog of passport applications; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47172/21]

I am getting a little closer to home with this question. The Minister will be aware the deluge of applications for passports has rapidly increased since the summer months and since travel has been permitted again. Obviously, the Passport Office was closed for a period during lockdown. It became an impossibility to acquire a passport. My office and, I am sure, the constituency offices of all my colleagues around the House have been inundated with queries about applications. There seem to be significant delays, even with the office reopened. What are the numbers for Kildare and what are the Minister's plans to arrest this backlog?

I will take your guidance, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, as to how you want me to deal with these questions, but I am apparently being asked to take Questions Nos. 8, 9, 12, 16, 19, 29, 37, 46, 49, 53, 61, 66, 77 and 81 all together.

They are all on the same topic, so-----

They are, but they are all asking for different numbers, which maybe I will try to send to the individual Deputies.

The important thing for me is that we keep within the time.

Well, on the basis of all these questions, we will be here until 4 o'clock this afternoon.

No we will not. You have five minutes and 40 seconds now.

Let me give the House the answer I have here and I will follow up with individual Deputies if I need to do so to give more information.

I welcome the opportunity to update the Deputies on the continued scaling up of operations by the passport service. The passport service maintained operations through the Covid-19 pandemic, despite the fact the processing of passports requires physical attendance on site to deliver this service. As a result of well-implemented safety protocols, 67,000 passport books and cards were issued between January and May of this year.

The operation of our public offices has necessarily been restricted due to the health and safety restrictions arising from Covid-19. That said, our customer service team maintained daily contact with customers by phone and online and the passport service continued to provide emergency services for those with a medical emergency or death of a family member abroad.

In line with our continued scaling up of services, I wish to advise Deputies that, as of Monday of this week, the urgent appointment service for renewal of passports is available for people who unexpectedly require their passport renewed at short notice. To avail of this service, members of the public can go online and book an appointment to attend the public office on Mount Street. The service is available for two types of appointment: same-day turnaround and four-day turnaround. A fee applies to the appointment service relative to how quickly the passport renewal is required. The urgent appointment service ensures that, for those who require an urgent turnaround of a passport renewal, an option is available that is transparent and predictable. It means applicants can book and pay for their appointments, safe in the knowledge they will have their passport within a day, or a few days, without having to queue or worry about whether they will make a flight.

The new system will also ensure citizens attend the public office on an appointment basis only, which allows for the maintenance of social distancing regulations within the public space. The passport service will continue to maintain its emergency service for those who require a passport for a medical emergency or death of a family member abroad.

As for turnaround times, the current passport processing times are ten working days for simple adult renewals, which is a very conservative estimate, actually, as they are being turned around often within 48 hours or less for online renewal applications from adults; 15 working days for complex renewals; 40 working days for first-time applications on Passport Online; and eight weeks for Passport Express, which I know has caused concern among some people. Almost 45% of passports for simple adult renewals continue to issue within one business day, while complex applications take longer.

There are approximately 130,000 applications currently on hand with the passport service. Seven Deputies have asked questions as to how current applications that are on hand are distributed by county, and I have arranged for those data to be shared with them by hard copy. All applications are dealt with based on date of receipt and application type rather than by geographical location. In other words, we have to do a bit of work to get the Deputies that information.

Of the applications on hand with the Passport Office, over 40% are incomplete applications that require additional action by the applicant before they can be processed further. Approximately 60% of the applications on hand are first-time applications. To protect the integrity of the Irish passport, such applications require careful processing to validate the identity of the applicant and his or her entitlement to Irish citizenship for the first time.

Additionally, in the case of children, consent of all guardians must be validated.

When I say that, some people look at me as if I am making an excuse to try to slow the thing down. I have been through this and have spoken to the team of people who are actually looking to root out fraud in the passport system. We have had about 450,000 passports issued this year and it is well understood that the passport system has been under an awful lot of pressure. That is exactly the time when criminals who want to commit fraud will try to use or abuse the passport system. We have to have a robust system to counteract that, and we do, but that means there is an implication in terms of timelines to make sure we do that well.

The passport service continually examines how to improve processing times, including examining the processes around the verification and processing of the supporting documentation for first-time applicants and any delays that have been experienced by our customers as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and the high demand seen in recent months as international travel resumed.

There has been an ongoing process of reform within the passport service since 2016. Enhancements over recent years means that Passport Online can now be accessed by first-time applicants, both children and adults, in Ireland, Northern Ireland, Great Britain, Europe, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA. All Irish citizens, including children, can use the online system to renew their passports from anywhere in the world.

Recent reforms have also improved our fraud detection capacity following the introduction of new facial recognition technology, which improves the efficiency and the integrity of the passport system. Maintaining that integrity is essential to ensuring the Irish passport is one of the most secure in the world and one of the most effective in terms of granting citizens visa-free access to most countries in the world.

We are over time. The Minister should conclude.

I will finish shortly. The next major element of the reform programme is to replace the core technology underpinning the passport service. The current system was launched in 2004 and will be replaced by a more modern, integrated system. Detailed design and implementation will begin in the coming months and it is expected to be operational by the end of 2023.

Not all Deputies are present. I will go through the questions in the order they appear on the Question Paper. I call Deputy James Lawless.

I will yield to another Deputy as I have spoken already on this question.

I call Deputy Dara Calleary.

I acknowledge the detail in the Minister's answer. I also acknowledge that the staff of the Passport Office are working hard and that they were moved to other Departments as part of the pandemic response, which I accept.

The Minister mentioned in his response that there was regular contact with passport applicants but there was not. Applicants come to us because they cannot get the information on where their passport will be and they cannot get through to the Passport Office. The online checker that shows people the passport application’s progress was not being updated at the height of the summer. That is why applicants come to us. We need extra customer services staff who can actually show people where their application is.

On the first-time applications, I agree 100% with the Minister on the need for checking those, in particular for infant passports. However, I have a case going back to June that has everything in place but we cannot get information on it.

In the coming months and next year, there will be an awful lot of people planning to travel because they have not been able to travel in two years. They will do the usual thing; they will go to travel and there will be no passport. We need the Department to be proactive, to buy space-----

If we all co-operate, Members will get back in.

We need it to give prompts to remind people to renew their passports in the immediate weeks.

I acknowledge the work of the staff within the Passport Office, who have done extraordinary work under very difficult circumstances. What has happened here has been a real failure to plan for the expected demand for passports, not just in terms of Brexit and the expected increase in applications in that regard but in a post-Covid situation and with the opening up of international travel. There was a failure to put in place the staff that are needed. The core staff within the passport service is about 450 and, during peak times, that increases by about 200. However, this year, it only increased by about 50, bringing it up to 500, so there was a shortage of staff within the passport section to deal with the expected increase in passport applications and with the backlog, and then people wonder why there are huge delays and problems. There were serious problems and a failure to deal with them.

The Minister can see from today’s debate that there is a serious issue. He called out all of the different numbers because all Deputies are receiving a huge number of queries within our own constituencies. It is the biggest issue I am addressing at the moment. While I welcome that online passport renewal is working fine, my concern is about the new applications, which take 40 working days, or about eight weeks. However, if there is any issue with paperwork or anything like that, it goes way beyond that. I am dealing with a case at the moment where a child passport has come back to the mother but the mother's passport has been kept. The mother and child are meant to be flying out next week and they have the child's passport after the 40 working days but they do not have the mother’s passport. There is huge concern about trying to get in contact with the Passport Office and trying to get communication. I know they are doing their best and this is not to do with the staff. Like others, I believe it is firmly understaffed and it is an issue we need to look at.

The time between a person making an application and getting a passport into their hand is a real concern for a great many parents who have come to my office. They are planning a holiday or travelling for work or otherwise, and having made the application several months ahead, they expect to have the passport. While I acknowledge the situation after the application starts to get processed, the upfront time, before it is checked, is where there is a big issue, and it can take several weeks - anything up to five weeks - before an application is checked. At that stage, if there is anything wrong, and the Minister's figures indicate up to 40% of applications are in that position, they get thrown back, with several other weeks added on before even getting to the starting line. In the past, it was possible to meet at the Passport Office to have the passport checked with the appointments facility. When will that facility be open again to people and will it be open at both the Cork and the Dublin offices?

I call Deputy Ring.

I have Question No. 11 on the Question Paper.

Question No. 61 was grouped, not Question No. 11. It is Question No. 61 that I am taking here.

It is on the Question Paper.

I am not going to have a row with you. That is the Question Paper. If it is on the Question Paper, I thought it would be called in order. I came in to speak about the Passport Office and I would like to have that opportunity.

It is important because the rules are important. Your Question No. 11 is not grouped. Your Question No. 61 is grouped and you are now getting your chance, uninterrupted.

I am not going to let it go and I will speak to you when this is over, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. There is no point putting questions down if I am not going to be called. Thank you.

We might all co-operate.

With regard to the Passport Office, I agree with all the previous speakers. Who made the decision at the beginning of the pandemic that this was not an essential service? Was it a Secretary General who the Minister has now made an ambassador and who got rewarded for making a mess of the Passport Office?

What really annoys me about government is this. We look at the front page of the Irish Independent today and we see Revenue threatening people to pay their property tax, yet we cannot get a driving licence, we cannot get the Land Registry and we cannot get any service in the public service at the moment. I have written to the Minister's Secretary General on five or six occasions. He is on about €211,000 a year. The least I expect from him is to answer my question. I put down questions to the Oireachtas. I would like the Leas-Cheann Comhairle to take this up as I have written to the Ceann Comhairle. I get no reply. I get them bundled into one reply. That is why we had the beef tribunal, because we did not get replies. When I put down a question as an elected representative in this House, I expect to get a reply.

The Minister talks about the emergency passport.

The Deputy is out of time.

It is €115 for the appointment and €95 for the password afterwards. I will give one example, just one example, and I will stop then.

I will give you a chance to come back in.

Thank you. You might let me back in again.

If you co-operate, you will all get a chance to come back in.

I always co-operate. It is you who did not co-operate with me this morning on the Question Paper.

I call the Minister to reply.

First, of course, I recognise there has been a lot of disruption in the context of people trying to access passports. I have spent a great deal of my summer dealing with many of the Deputies in this House, trying to get passports resolved for many of their offices and for their constituents. I have specifically put a team in place around me in the office to try to ensure that happens as efficiently as possible. It is not always possible to solve that. If somebody comes to me and they are looking for a child's passport and they need it in 48 hours, we cannot do it. However, if someone is travelling at short notice and we can resolve the issue, we have been trying to do that for people.

We also have to recognise this is not just about getting more staff. If it was, we would have solved it. The nature of the passport operation is that staff need to be on site in the Passport Office to be able to deliver a safe service. We have a secure network within the Passport Office. We cannot simply take space in a warehouse somewhere else and issue passports separately.

We have taken on extra staff. The reason we could not take on more extra staff was not because we could not access more people. It was because we did not physically have the space in the secure environment of the Passport Office to be able to do the job that is necessary.

By the way, the Government did make a decision in May that the passport service was an essential service which, of course, was part of me getting more staff back into the Passport Office while managing the necessary Covid restrictions as well.

Thank you, Minister.

If I could finish the point because I had a lot of questions and I am entitled to answer them, surely.

I only can work with what I am working with.

You cannot give me two minutes to answer a dozen Members.

I do not give the minutes. It is all set out. I will let you back in. We will let the Deputies in first on this matter.

I will try to come back with replies to the individual questions Members have.

I would ask for Members' co-operation. Deputy Lawless has kindly given up his slot. I call Deputy Calleary.

Can we put in place a system that you cannot book a flight without getting a reminder asking if your passport is in order? If the Department has to pay for that commercially, it is all that is needed. It would be a prompt.

The notion that customer service is engaging with people is not our experience. The passport team is working incredibly hard but if you want to get detail on a passport, it is incredibly difficult.

Can we open a passport office in the west where people can walk in off the street? I propose Ireland West Airport Knock. It is the driver of much of the demand. To ask somebody to do an eight-hour return journey to be asked a simple question is unfair.

One of the major failures has been the inability of people to get accurate and timely information from the service. Even looking at the website today, it is saying that the turnaround for renewal for children is 15 days. I am dealing with many families who have had to cancel holidays because the parents have been able to get their passports renewed but the children's, even though all the documentation has been furnished in a timely manner, have taken months to turn around. That is in contrast to what is on the Department's website - a 15-day turnaround time.

There needs to be an expansion of the service. My colleague, Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile, has long advocated for the opening of a passport office in Belfast. That now needs to be looked at because one of the major issues has been the massive influx of passport applications from the Six Counties. There has been a failure to plan for that expected increase and it has not been catered for. I urge the Minister to look again at the possibility of opening a passport office in Belfast.

The Minister stated it is an essential service. It worries me that the Minister cannot find the space. We had to move to the convention centre because we are an essential service and we were able to do that. The Minister is telling us here today the Passport Office cannot find office space. We have people trying to get a service who are waiting.

That is not what I said.

Through the Chair, thank you.

What the Minister is saying is we need something bigger. The Passport Office is back open part time, which is great, but it is only for appointments and only for urgent cases, that is all, unless it is a first-time one. That is unacceptable. The office needs to be opened to deal with the number of passport applications.

I will give the Minister time to come back in. I call an Teachta Aindrias ó Muineacháin, who will be followed by an Teachta Ring and then the Minister.

The real issue with first-time passport applications is the time before processing starts on them at all. There could be some issue with the application but the application rests untouched with nothing happening with it. After approximately five or six weeks, somebody identifies there is an issue, highlights it with the family, the application comes back again and time is lost before processing gets under way. It is the issue of getting to the starting line.

The Minister outlined there will be emergency appointments available. Will he clarify that they will also be available at the Cork office to ensure people can go and have their applications reviewed to make sure, even before they start at all, that everything is in order and they are presenting immediately at the starting line, as it were and not five or six weeks behind?

Last Friday evening, a constituent of mine who has dual citizenship - Canadian and Irish - was on to me. They made their application to the Irish Passport Office. They went up to the Canadian Embassy last Friday evening and they came out with an emergency passport for the child. They could not even get an answer from the Passport Office here in Dublin. They spent weeks and weeks and weeks.

Something has to be done. I agree with my colleague. The Minister is talking about putting the service into Belfast. I would like to see our own citizens in the west of Ireland - my constituents - have it. We have no passport office in the west. In Galway, we have no passport office. We have none in Mayo or Sligo. We have to go to Dublin. If there is a problem, it is up to Dublin. This is making a big profit every year for the Government and the least we should have is a passport office in the west. It is something the Minister should look at.

It is something I have been raising here for the past ten years. Of course, they will not listen in the Department but they will have their own passports. All these ambassadors going all over the world will have their passports.

The Minister to reply.

An Irish citizen who is a taxpayer-----

The Minister to reply, thank you.

The Irish citizen, who is paying his or her tax in this country, should have that document and he or she should not be begging for it.

The Minister to reply. I asked Members for their co-operation. The Minister has two uninterrupted minutes.

Nobody is begging for anything. This is the provision of an essential service through a pandemic.

I will be clear to Deputies. It is not about not being able to access extra office space. The way in which the Passport Office is set up is that it is a secure space to protect the integrity of the passport system. There was plenty of office space that we could take but you cannot simply extend into another office without extending the secure systems within the Passport Office, which is not straightforward.

We are expanding the physical space of the Passport Office in Balbriggan. We have taken on significantly more space adjacent to the existing Passport Office so that we can do that securely. We will be taking on extra staff to do that, planning for a significant increase in the demand for passports to be issued next year.

On opening up new offices for urgent appointment services, we will focus on the offices we have. The Cork office will open on the 22nd. I will come back to Members as to whether it would be deemed necessary or helpful to open other offices in other parts of the country.

We have looked at whether it would make sense to open a passport office in Northern Ireland. The review of that suggested, because the vast majority of applications are now made online, that should not be prioritised for now, but it is something I have an open mind on.

I would ask Members to recognise the extraordinary delivery system that has been in place for nearly half a million passports this year through a pandemic at a time when severe restrictions were in place in terms of allowing staff come into offices. We are now putting new systems in place to look at a severe increase.

Thank you, Minister.

Deputy Aindrias Moynihan is correct. The time it takes to get to the starting line for the issuing of a passport is the big issue.

We are way over time.

When there are-----

I have allowed more than the time to this question. There are other Deputies waiting for their questions. I am sorry. We are way over time.

All right. When there is paperwork involved, there are complications in the middle of a pandemic. That has been the issue.

Human Rights

Jim O'Callaghan

Question:

10. Deputy Jim O'Callaghan asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs his assessment of the current situation in Nicaragua ahead of the election in that country; if he has concerns about the crackdown on opposition politicians; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47169/21]

A presidential election is due to take place in Nicaragua on 7 November next. It is obviously a matter for the people of Nicaragua to decide who they want to elect as their president, but if it is the case that that election is taking place without transparency or fairness, it becomes a matter for the international community. I ask the Minister whether the Government has any concerns about the forthcoming election considering that, since last May, more than 30 opposition leaders have been arrested by the regime of President Daniel Ortega and it appears all opposition in that country is being suppressed.

From passports in Mayo to Nicaragua, but I am happy to take that question.

I am deeply concerned by the deteriorating democratic and human rights situation in Nicaragua, in particular, the ongoing repression of opposition politicians, members of the media, human rights defenders and civil society representatives. I am also very concerned by the arrest and detention earlier this year of a number of potential presidential candidates, many of whom are now being prosecuted under the foreign agents law, which contravenes basic democratic principles and seriously undermines the electoral process in Nicaragua.

This law, alongside others recently adopted, serves only to tighten restrictions on civil and political rights and fundamental freedoms and hinders the work of civil society and non-governmental organisations in the lead-in to the presidential elections due to be held on 7 November.

I support the statement of the EU High Representative, Dr. Josep Borrell, on 10 June calling for the immediate and unconditional release of the detained potential presidential candidates and all other political prisoners, ensuring respect for their human, civil and political rights. Inclusive dialogue is the only way to resolve the political, economic and social crisis in Nicaragua.

Ireland, through the EU, has consistently called on the Nicaraguan Government to abide by its own commitments, its constitution and international human rights laws and standards. Ireland is also supportive of the EU's introduction of restrictive measures against targeted individuals in Nicaragua who are responsible for serious human rights violations and-or whose actions undermine democracy and the rule of law. On 2 August, the EU Foreign Affairs Council imposed further restrictive measures on eight additional individuals, including the Nicaraguan Vice President, which means that a total of 14 persons are now subject to an asset freeze and travel ban.

Ireland, along with our EU partners, will continue to support efforts towards reaching a peaceful and negotiated solution in Nicaragua. Officials in my Department, including the Embassy of Ireland in Mexico, which covers Nicaragua, will continue to monitor the situation closely in co-operation with the EU delegation in Managua.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I share his concern. Some politicians have the benefit of being viewed as political saints. It is not a designation that applies to me or most Members of this House, but it is a designation that was applied to Mr. Daniel Ortega, the President of Nicaragua. As the Minister is aware, Mr. Ortega came to power in 1979, was elected as President in 1984 and was viewed as the great liberator who brought freedom to Nicaragua and fought against the Contras.

That may have been the case at the time, but it now appears that he has unfortunately turned into a Ceauşescu-like dictator. Some of the measures that have been introduced in Nicaragua recently are matters of extreme concern, and should be for our Government and the EU. As the Minister mentioned, many opposition leaders have been imprisoned, including journalists and lawyers. It is also the case that a law has been introduced prohibiting anyone who is designated as a traitor from contesting the presidential election. What further action can the EU take in order to show our opposition to these actions?

The EU is using its relatively new human rights laws to introduce targeted sanctions formally against individuals it believes are responsible for undermining democracy or compromising human rights in the context of international human rights law. The EU has already acted on that. It will remain under consideration as to whether we will extend those targeted sanctions to more individuals. These are real sanctions involving asset freezes and travel bans. Some in Nicaragua have assets in the EU. The sanctions are targeted and can be impactful. As we build up to elections at the start of November, the EU will continue to monitor the position.

It might also be worth considering whether the Department can encourage international human rights bodies to seek authorisation to return to Nicaragua. I am thinking in particular of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

It is a worrying development if there is this level of oppression in Nicaragua. I hope that the election on 7 November will be monitored. I am not aware as to whether international election monitors will be permitted into Nicaragua and, if they are, whether they will be given the freedom to appraise the election fairly. We can take a message from what has happened in Nicaragua, in that it is an example of a revolution that went wrong. Unfortunately, what started out as a revolutionary independence movement has transformed into a vanity project for President Ortega, his Vice President, who doubles up as his wife, and part of the Sandinista regime.

This is something that the EU has been following and continues to follow. It is not something that has got much media coverage in Ireland. Unfortunately, it is a part of the world that does not get the spotlight often enough. However, the EU will closely monitor how these elections are run and maintain a focus on its restrictive measures or targeted sanctions to try to be as persuasive as possible. There will be a request from the international community for full access for election observers. Whether that access is granted remains to be seen, but I would have my doubts.

It looks like Deputy Ring will ask the last question.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for letting me in. I did not realise that I was going to be able to ask my question, so I thank her.

No, I am not "letting the Deputy in". It is now his turn to come in with Question No. 11. We are going to run out of time, so his time will be short.

Passport Services

Michael Ring

Question:

11. Deputy Michael Ring asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the number of staff working in the Passport Office on a monthly basis from January 2020 to 31 August 2021; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47039/21]

I will put two brief questions to the Minister. First, will he take staff from other Departments and put them into the Passport Office to try to deal with the emergency? Second, and seriously, is it not time that the Department considered putting a passport office in the west? If there is a problem, it is not fair that someone from Galway, Mayo or Belmullet has to go to Dublin to resolve it. Although many passports are being processed online, there are still many that are not. This matter has been raised with me and every Member of the House. That is why the Minister has received so many questions about it today. People are upset.

I know that people are frustrated because, in the absence of international travel for nearly 18 months, many are now checking and realising that their passports are out of date, but they want to plan their holidays. We understand what is contributing to the dramatic increase in demand, which will continue right the way through next year. We are taking on more people, but access to more people has not been the primary problem. The challenge has been in being able to get people into the office safely and expanding the physical footprint of a secure passport office that I can stand over in terms of its security operation. Both of these matters are being addressed. I have walked through the new physical footprint of the Passport Office, which is being fitted out at the moment to plan for next year and the extra people that we will take on and who will be factored into our Estimate.

I cannot give the Deputy an answer as to whether we will open an office in the west. We want to get our existing office infrastructure open. We have to open in Cork and we have only just opened the office in Dublin for emergency passport delivery. If we are going to go beyond that, it has to come from a process of assessment within the Department, but I do not have a closed mind about the idea.

I thank the Minister for his answer. I acknowledge that the staff of the Passport Office are working under difficult conditions, but this is an essential service. I warned the Department three months ago that this problem would arise and it has now happened. There has been a problem every summer. I would like to see it not happening next year and the office being given the requisite number of staff to process passports. Many people did not have holidays this year because they could not get a document to which they were entitled.

An awful lot of people were accommodated at the last minute as well. I know, because we have been working night and day trying to deal with emergency passports for people throughout the summer. For some of the summer months, we issued up to 100,000 passports per month. The people who do not get resolved through the system go to Deputies' offices and, therefore, many Deputies hear about lots of problems and do not see the benefits of a system that is getting back up on its feet with extra resources and new systems in place to be more efficient. However, I accept that there is work to do. I do not want to pretend that all the problems with the Passport Office have been solved. They have not been. We also need to focus as a priority on getting foreign birth registries working as they should be.

Passport applications take time. We cannot move in a direction of essentially giving a message to the public that everyone can get a passport at the last minute if he or she does not renew earlier.

That is not fair. They had them in on time. They have had them in for 40 days.

For the people who have them in on time, we need to have a system that delivers on time and is predictable, and that people can track. We are working on the delivery of that system.

The system has to be fair.