The year 2017 was a record breaking one for the passport service, with approximately 780,000 passports issued. This was an increase of over 6% compared to 2016 and an increase of over 15% since 2015. That strong demand for Irish passports includes an increased demand from Irish citizens in Northern Ireland and Great Britain - overall, almost 20% of the total number of applications received by the passport service last year were from Northern Ireland and Great Britain. As the Senator pointed out, a total of 82,274 applications were received from applicants in Northern Ireland and first-time applicants represented approximately half of all those applications from Northern Ireland.
We predict that increasing demand will continue to be a feature of our work in 2018, bearing in mind a range of factors, including a growing population and economy. Between 1 and 21 January 2018, the passport service has already received 53,554 passport applications. Of this total and in the same period, we have received 4,446 applications from Irish citizens in Northern Ireland; 4,020 of these applications have been made via the Northern Ireland passport express service, while 425 have been received via the passport online renewal service.
In anticipation of increased demand my Department has commissioned research to try to better understand the potential demand for passports from citizens who have not yet applied for a passport. That study will assist the Department in formulating plans on the resources required into the future.
Responding to this significant and growing demand, the passport service offers a range of convenient channels for submission of passport applications by Irish citizens at home and abroad. Advice and guidance on these channels and other useful information on passports is available on the Department's website at https://www.dfa.ie/passports.
The Department has worked exceptionally hard to ensure we provide a modern, secure and efficient passport service. An ambitious reform programme is in place to meet the unprecedented demand for passports from Irish citizens at home and abroad, and to continuously strengthen systems guarding against fraud and protecting the integrity of the Irish passport.
The award-winning online passport renewal service was launched in March 2017 and offers the convenience of an online application system 24 hours a day, seven days a week for adult Irish citizens anywhere in the world, without the need for application forms, printed photos or witnesses. The introduction of online service not only offers improved customer experience but is also resulting in efficiency gains which are assisting my Department to manage the large volume increases in applications.
Citizens who cannot or do not wish to apply online have the option of applying through their local post office. In 2017, over 400,000 citizens availed of this option and submitted their passport application through the network of more than 1,000 post offices across the State. The Northern Ireland passport express service offers an equivalent service to those living in Northern Ireland from more than 70 of its post offices. We are keenly aware of the importance of our post office network on this island and I want to acknowledge the valuable role it plays in administering the passport express service, offering a convenient and cost-effective option for citizens across the island of Ireland.
Bearing in mind the availability of both the online and postal application channels, very few citizens living on the island of Ireland are required to travel a significant distance in order to apply for their passport. In the relatively small number of cases where citizens need to travel very urgently and do not have a valid passport, the passport offices in Dublin and Cork offer an appointment service, including where necessary a rapid renewal one-day service. The passport service keeps passport demand under review on an ongoing basis.
To address the increased demand for passports during peak season, the passport service is this year employing over 210 temporary clerical officers to assist in processing. These staff have been hired and the roles are being filled. My Department has also been working closely with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to fill permanent positions across all passport offices and I am pleased to say over 20 permanent staff have joined the passport service in the past month.
Furthermore, it is already planned to further extend the online application facility to all citizens, including first-time applicants and children, by 2019. That will be a very significant step indeed in terms of enhancing the service for all citizens. That will allow additional efficiency gains and improvements in customer service. People who cannot or do not wish to apply online will still be able to submit their applications through a service provider with an extensive network of contact points throughout the country.
In all the circumstances, I am satisfied that the range of service options available meets the current needs of passport applicants and projected demand and I do not see a compelling rationale to open an additional passport office in Northern Ireland at this time. I should clarify that any new office would need to have the capacity to provide a rapid renewal service for applicants with urgent travel needs such as that available through the passport office in Dublin. That would require an on-site passport production machine in a specially controlled and secure environment. The purchase cost of a new passport printing machine alone would be approximately €1.7 million. That is without security, technical, fit-out, staffing and rental costs. An outreach office without production facilities could not offer a significantly faster service than the online option and it would do no more than duplicate the passport express service already offered through local post offices.
In all the circumstances, I am convinced that with the existing and future range of services, including passport express, rapid renewal and online services, my Department will continue to more than adequately meet the needs of all passport applicants, wherever in the island of Ireland they are living. My Department is also working on an outreach public awareness programme to inform the general public of all the services available in applying for a passport.