Six-County passport offices on the way
BY CAÍTLIN DOHERTY
As proposals to open Irish passport offices in Belfast and Derry appear ready to come to fruition, unionists have launched a fresh campaign to block the project.
They have claimed that the Dublin government is treating the Six Counties ``as if it were a province of the Republic'' and are insisting that a consulate should be opened instead.
Dublin foreign affairs minister Brian Cowen set up a committee last June to consider opening a passport office in the Six Counties. The committee is due to report back next month and Cowen will consult Taoiseach Bertie Ahern before making a decision.
The Dublin government says the move is being considered because of the increasing number of people from the North who are claiming their Irish citizenship through passport applications, despite all the practical difficulties involved.
Last year, 21,434 people applied for Irish passports, compared to 77,794 in 1994. Dublin even opened a special phone line last month to help cope with the wave of applications.
Unionists say the Dublin government should open a consulate, which would confer formal diplomatic recognition on the Six Counties as a separate legal and political entity. Irish consulates were opened in Scotland and Wales last year after powers were devolved to assemblies in Edinburgh and Cardiff.
Ulster Unionist security spokesperson and ex-UDR man Ken Maginnis has written to Cowen outlining his opposition to a passport office. He sent copies of the letter to Tony Blair and Robin Cook, the British foreign secretary.
Maginnis argued that opening the office would be ``a breach of the Good Friday Agreement''. Sinn Féin's Mid-Ulster MP Martin McGuinness hit back, saying that the notion of consular facilities was ``gratuitous nonsense''.
Sinn Féin has been lobbying the Dublin government on this issue for a number of years, as it has been the party's aim to promote access for northern nationalists to as many aspects of 26-County government services as possible.
On Tuesday, 29 August, McGuinness said it must be recognised that almost half the population in the North would opt for Irish passports, therefore it is imperative that the bureaucracy be reduced as much as possible.
``The Good Friday Agreement guarantees parity of esteem and equal legitimacy for both traditions here. The Agreement is a recognition that the North of Ireland is not as `British as Finchley','' he said.
``In accepting the Agreement, Ken Maginnis and his party accepted `the entitlement of every person born in the island of Ireland, which includes its islands and seas, to be part of the Irish nation'. This entitles those of us living in the North to be able to avail of Irish government services where practicable on the same basis as all other Irish citizens.''