I propose to take Questions Nos. 493 and 494 together.
The granting of Irish citizenship through naturalisation is governed by the provisions of the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act 1956, as amended. All applications for a certificate of naturalisation are processed and assessed individually in accordance with the provisions of the Act.
I am deeply conscious of how important the granting of naturalisation is to those who apply for it and my Department has continued to accept and process citizenship applications throughout the pandemic and at all levels of public health restrictions. However, processing rates have been negatively impacted by the necessary health and safety related restrictions imposed and it has not been possible to hold in-person citizenship ceremonies since March 2020.
This has further exacerbated significant delays which arose from a High Court case in 2019, which was subsequently successfully appealed to the Court of Appeal. Unfortunately that resulted in the loss of over six months’ processing time, before the appeal resolved the issue.
This accumulated delay in 2019 combined with the impact of the pandemic since March 2020 means that, regrettably, there are just over 22,210 applications currently on hand. These applications are at various stages of processing, ranging from those just received to those where a decision has been made and are "ceremony ready".
To deal with applicants that were in the final stages of processing, on 18 January 2021, my Department opened a temporary system to enable applicants to complete their naturalisation process by signing a statutory declaration of loyalty. Since then, my Department has delivered on its commitment to communicate with 6,500 applicants by the end of June, inviting them to complete the final steps required prior to the granting of a certificate of naturalisation.
As of 15 September 2021, 6,167 certificates of naturalisation have been issued so far this year. A further 1,000 people have paid the statutory fee and will receive their certificates in the coming weeks.
Since the beginning of this week, the staff of the Citizenship Division of my Department have returned to the office on a new attendance pattern that will see a gain of approximately 500 production hours per week due to increased footfall on-site. To further address the volume of applications on hand, additional staff are being assigned to the citizenship team; and a number of digitisation measures have been introduced to increase efficiency in the process, including eTax clearance, eVetting and online payments.
The end result of the digitisation process will be to free up more staff to focus on processing applications in a timely and efficient manner, to improve service to our customers and reduce waiting times. Based on this, my objective is to achieve an improved decision making timeframe of 6-9 months for a majority of applications during 2022.