Ireland is one of 27 countries that participate in the US visa waiver programme, which enables citizens of those countries to travel to the US for up to 90 days without a visa for business or tourist purposes. The US enhanced border security act, enacted after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, requires each country that participates in the visa waiver programme to introduce, or have in place a programme to introduce, passports containing biometric information by 26 October 2004. Otherwise, citizens of these countries will have to obtain a visa for travel to the US. This will only apply to passports issued on or after 26 October 2004; holders of passports issued before that date will continue to be able to enter the US under the visa waiver programme without a visa, provided their passports are machine-readable and the personal information is printed and not hand-written. All Irish passports issued in Dublin, Cork and London are machine-readable.
In view of the numbers of Irish travellers to the US and the importance of our economic and wider relationships with that country, the Government believes it is highly desirable that Ireland remain a participant in the visa waiver programme. The Government also believes that the incorporation of biometric information in passports will give greater security of identity to individual passport holders which will increase the safety of air travel. This is recognised at EU level also. The European Council in Brussels on 12 December 2003 invited the European Commission to submit in due time a proposal for the introduction of biometric identifiers in passports.
Accordingly, the Government has decided in principle that Ireland should introduce passports containing biometric information subject to further consideration of the practical and other requirements for doing so. My Department will shortly commission a feasibility study to investigate the technical, legal, data protection and other issues related to biometric passports. In the light of that study, the Government will make a final decision on the arrangements for the introduction of biometric passports. I intend to complete this work in time to enable Ireland to comply with the requirements of the US enhanced border security act.
My Department is currently developing a new Irish passport which will be introduced later this year. This is part of the modernisation of the passport issuing system designed to improve the overall passport service to the public and to ensure that Irish passports continue to adhere to the highest international security standards. The new passport will contain a polycarbonate — plastic — data page which will be capable of incorporating a microchip on which biometric data characteristics such as the shape of a person's face or their fingerprints can be inserted.