Seanad debates

Friday, 26 March 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Citizenship Applications

10:30 am

Photo of Niall Ó DonnghaileNiall Ó Donnghaile (Sinn Fein)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a bheith linn agus as an cheist seo a ghlacadh. What I am asking for is very straightforward. People have been in touch with me and many of my MLA and MP colleagues. Their main issues relate to the cost involved in applying for naturalisation and the complexity of the process. I appreciate and fully understand that citizenship is very precious, that we need to guard it and ensure that we are not lacklustre in our approach. However, it is important to state that we also need to understand that citizenship should not be the preserve of people who have the financial means or, indeed, the skills to complete what has often been described to me as being a very bureaucratic and complex process. We cannot price people out of citizenship, particularly as Senator O'Loughlin said in her previous Commencement matter, those who are working hard at citizenship. What citizenship brings to our lives is much more than simply a monetary value. It is what people do daily in their communities, families and in all of our lives.

I am sure that the Minister can appreciate that the following are two big problem for applicants. While this is an issue across the entirety of Ireland, the vast bulk of the cases that have been referred to me came from applicants from the Six Counties. One of the issues is the need for a personal public service number, PPSN, which people do not have in the North. One also needs a tax certificate from this jurisdiction, which people in the North do not have. Again, that adds a further layer of complexity and difficulty. It is another way to put people off, in some instances, applying for Irish citizenship, which we should not seek to do.

The thrust of my Commencement matter is to ask the Minister to consider the current scale of the costs. One applicant has told me that the virtual ceremony, to which the Minister referred, cost over £900 and that was just to sit at home for a virtual ceremony. That is a significant sum of money for someone who works in a low-paid job, not least in the context of Covid but at any time.

I ask the Minister to consider reviewing the current application process and to take note of the difficulties people have cited. Within that, I ask her to consider a bespoke arrangement that would pertain to applicants from the Six Counties for similar important forms. Again, I am not being green. I realise that we need to be protective and do things right. I would appreciate if people who are resident in the North could have much easier and quicker access to forms of equal importance than, for example, a PPSN and tax certificate from this State.

Finally, the Minister referenced in response to the earlier Commencement matter the movement towards the new ceremony process, which is welcome with the current restrictions due to Covid. I ask her to reduce the cost to reduce the financial burden on people who already are facing a very difficult time. I thank the Minister for coming in and thank the Acting Chairperson.

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Ó Donnghaile for raising this issue.

First, let me start with the payments and fees, as outlined by the Senator. These are governed by the provisions of the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Regulations 2011. The fees are paid in two parts. The current application fee is €175, which is payable when an application for naturalisation is lodged. A certification fee is payable when a certificate of naturalisation is issued, that is, only when a certificate is issued and not prior to that or where a certificate is not issued. The standard certification fee is set at €950. A reduced fee of €200 applies in the case of an application made on behalf of a minor or in certain cases where the application is made by a widow, widower or surviving civil partner of an Irish citizen. In the case of recognised refugees and stateless persons, there is no certification fee. Consequently, there are instances where there is a significantly reduced fee.

The standard fees payable by an applicant are designed to reflect the effort that goes into the entire process and the costs involved in processing applications for a certificate of naturalisation, which gives benefit to everybody involved. It is quite a detailed process. This is not about making money or about the Department or anybody else. This is about making sure that the huge amount of work required to process is covered.There is no provision for the discretionary waiver or reduction of fees or for different fees to be applied, except in the situations I have just outlined and other exceptional circumstances. I mentioned earlier that all of these fees are payable under the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act 1956, as amended. This matter is constantly reviewed by my Department. If we feel that fees can be reduced, while acknowledging the significant work involved in processing these applications, we will certainly do so. This area is, however, constantly monitored and, as I have said, no profit is being made. The fees are in place simply to make sure that the process can continue.

The Senator mentioned the new process that has come into play. This is quite significant because it means we will be able to address the sizeable backlog. This backlog is a very significant problem as it has affected some people for many years. To date, 3,615 communications have issued and 1,600 declarations have been returned. At the end of this month, a further 500 will be issued. I have received many messages, texts and emails from people who have received their certificates of naturalisation. Some 887 of these have already issued and more will issue in the coming weeks. On top of that, we aim to communicate with an additional 2,500 applicants in the system by the end of June. By the end of June, 6,000 people will have been communicated with and will be able to return their declarations before, it is to be hoped, receiving their letters of naturalisation within a few short weeks. We are moving through the existing backlog.

Obviously, I would like to return to person-to-person citizenship ceremonies. It is a wonderful way to welcome our new citizens, to acknowledge the significant role they play in our communities and to celebrate with them but, until we are in a position to hold such ceremonies, we will continue with the new process which is in place.

The Senator asked whether we could change the system itself. It is kept under consistent review. I take his points on board but the process is in place and the requirements are there for a reason. It is important that anybody who becomes an Irish citizen can adhere to that process and apply it to their own situation. We do, however, need to keep everything under constant review. I acknowledge and take on board the points the Senator has made, particularly in respect of those coming from the Six Counties.

The fee is there to cover the costs of the work being done. If one looks at what is happening at the moment, one will see that we are working through the backlog. We want to make sure that people who have been in the system for a long time receive their citizenship as soon as possible and that the process is not delayed in any way, shape or form for those coming down the line because of the current backlog. I am confident that we will be able to meet all of those targets and timelines we have set, particularly for this year.

Photo of Niall Ó DonnghaileNiall Ó Donnghaile (Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister for her comprehensive answer. There is quite a lot to get through there. I am very keen to work with her and her Department in terms of offering positive suggestions as to how this could be reviewed and how we could look at a more bespoke arrangement for people. The Minister will know from her previous life in another Department that, given the consequences of Brexit, there is a heightened interest in Irish citizenship among people living in the North who are entitled to avail of it. It is important that we accept and acknowledge that and work to make the process as streamlined, good and effective as it can be.

I am encouraged by the statistics in respect of the backlog and by the intention to clear it. This has been to the fore when people have raised this issue with me. It is something on which we will keep a watching brief. I am sure those who are still waiting will also do so.

Is it possible to consider those low-paid workers who want to avail of citizenship in any review or consideration of this matter? While I appreciate the reasons the Minister has given as to why the fees are warranted, perhaps there is an opportunity to allow these fees to be paid in instalments over a period, rather than in one big sum of money, in order to lighten the burden on applicants.

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I will certainly take that recommendation on board. This is about making sure we have a streamlined process. To refer to a previous Commencement matter I addressed today, we are investing in ICT to move systems in these structures and in the Department of Justice away from what are, unfortunately, mainly paper-based systems towards an online system which would make it much easier for people to apply and which would be much easier to navigate. That will help speed up all of these processing times. A great deal of investment is being made in ICT within the Department of Justice and this will be to the benefit of those applying.It is not straightforward to apply for citizenship in any country. It is a special status that is conferred on somebody, so we need to ensure that the system is robust and anyone who applies can adhere to the guidelines, rules and regulations.

The way in which the funding is administered is kept under constant review. I will take the Senator's suggestions on board.