Wednesday 14 April 2010


After I’d been living in England for a few years, one of my friends asked me if I was going to apply for a British passport.

‘But why?’ I asked, perplexed. Friend ran through various benefits – all of which I countered, saying my Irish passport was just as beneficial and, in some places, more welcome than a British passport. Looking for the argument that would convince me, friend finally asked me how I could pass up the opportunity to be under the protection of Her Britannic Majesty.

Well, obviously, this nearly swayed me, but I managed to resist.

I was reminded of this conversation yesterday in the National Archives. I was leafing through inter-governmental memos from the 1930s and 40s and came across some notes about the status of Irish passports. The Irish state was undergoing a rebranding exercise at the time (a lot of it consisted of making things green – postboxes and passports just two examples of same) and had recently decided to create the office of a President to be head of state. Except, you see, this was only an internal President; once you left Ireland you were under the protection of (ahem) His Britannic Majesty. It was in his name passports and credentials for Irish diplomats were issued.

The papers I looked at were full of confusion about this, made worse by the fact that when they coloured the Irish passports green, they decided to change the wording of the preamble at the front, so now it read: We, the Minister for External Affairs of the Irish Free State request and require in the name of His Majesty…. (no clue as to why the Minister adopted the royal we):

Why, many people asked – not unreasonably – wasn’t it the President requesting and requiring Foreign People Abroad to allow the bearer to pass freely? The Minister for External Affairs (also the Taoiseach, also Eamon de Valera, whose every move was greeted by the opposition yelling ‘it’s a plot A PLOT I TELL YOU’) explained that it was one thing for him, a lowly minister, to represent the king in this instance. But if the President issued (so to speak) passports, he would only be doing it as the king’s minion (to paraphrase) and this would be a blow to the dignity of the President’s office.

Eventually the complicated situation of having two heads of state (one for indoors wear, one for outdoors) was resolved. Ireland became a republic and since 1949 it has been the President who accredits diplomats. Except, EXCEPT, Irish passports are still issued as a request from the Minister for Foreign Affairs – not from the head of state.

Now, I may not have wanted the protection of Her Britannic Majesty, but I wouldn’t mind a discreet message from Her Excellency, the President. But perhaps the powers that be decided the President was well out of the business of passports. And at least now I (and you) know why Irish passports are the way they are.

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