Passport services could be shifted to another department or even outsourced to private operators as the applications backlog smashed the 50,000 barrier, top Government officials warned today.
The tacit threat will further heighten tensions with staff at Dublin’s Passport Office who issued protective notice of intention to strike within a week in a dispute over public sector pay and conditions.
Ugly scenes erupted for a fourth day at the Molesworth Street premises as hundreds of people with imminent travel plans queued from as early as yesterday evening to get their travel documents.
One 34-year-old man, Colin Gillick from Co Wicklow, chained himself to a door handle inside the office at one stage, only leaving after an assurance he could collect his passport on Friday.
Other disgruntled holidaymakers complained that despite trade union assurances that staff would deal with applications for immediate travel plans, management had refused to do so inside.
In an emergency Oireachtas committee meeting, Foreign Affairs secretary general David Cooney – the top civil servant in charge of passport services – said his department would review the possibility of privatising the Passport Office or moving it to another Government department.
“Clearly the outsourcing option is there – it is something there would be some concerns about – but it is there, it exists,” he told TDs and Senators.
But he added any move could not happen overnight and that the best route for quickly reducing the massive backlog of passport applications was to resolve the industrial dispute with the workers’ union.
However, Mr Cooney insisted Foreign Affairs chiefs and Passport Office managers had nothing to offer the Civil, Public and Services Union (CPSU) because their row was with central Government.
Revealing the backlog of unprocessed applications had now soared to 50,000, the senior civil servant said he would report to Foreign Affairs Minister Micheál Martin on the possibility of legal action to stop the union interfering with the issuing of passports.
Mr Cooney also agreed to consider another proposal by Fine Gael TD Alan Shatter to warn the CPSU they could be held liable for compensation claims brought by people disrupted by the dispute.
Playing down the strike threat, Eoin Ronayne, CPSU deputy general secretary, said the notice was to protect his members after management threatened to dock their pay.
“This is primarily a tactical manoeuvre,” he said.
“This is not something we are gloating over. This is a nightmare for my members.”
Mr Ronayne claimed there are 50-60 fewer workers in the Passport Office due to the public sector recruitment freeze and a row over the hiring of temporary workers.
“I think the public are being used to blackmail the union at this stage by other forces,” he said.
But Mr Cooney said a 10-week-old union overtime ban and block on the employment of 50 temporary staff – which has already been sanctioned by Government – was behind the backlog.
Foreign Affairs said proposals for emergency measures such as stamps to extend passports and temporary travel documents were no longer acceptable for international travel since the 9/11 attacks in the US.
The Oireachtas committee heard some low-cost airlines from Belfast have relaxed their identity requirements for flights to Britain and will accept photographic identification other than passports.
But Ryanair was criticised for refusing to make any exceptions to their passport rule in a move described as “not very patriotic” by Labour TD Michael D Higgins.
Mr Cooney said he was in discussions with landlords near the Passport Office to secure more accommodation as an overspill waiting room for the crowds gathering outside.
Europe Minister Dick Roche meanwhile told the Dáil that a "flood" of passport applications in recent days is making the crisis worse.
"The passport service has to operate to international standards and these include standards drawn up by international organisations such as the US Department of Homeland Security," Minister Roche said.
"Unfortunately there is not room for shortcuts in this process. It has to be handled in a way that is professional.
"As concern has set in there has been a flood of passport applications in recent days which has added to the problems."