Around 3,000 applications for so called ‘Golden Visas’ are still being examined by the Department of Justice in the wake of the closure of the Immigrant Investor Programme (IIP).
The scheme was shut down abruptly in February amid concern over a surge in applicants from China.
The programme opened residency in the State to non-Europeans with “at least €2 million” in personal wealth.
They were in return required to invest €1 million in an Irish business or to make a €500,000 philanthropic donation or a €400,000 donation in certain cases.
Department of Justice secretary general Oonagh McPhillips told the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that there were 1,316 applications in total in 2022 and the number was “really going through the roof”.
There were a further 1,350 in 2023 before the scheme was closed to new applications.
The PAC was told how various international organisations from the European Commission to the OECD had raised concerns about such investor schemes and the risks they pose in areas like money-laundering, and sanctions and tax evasion.
Since the scheme opened in 2012 some 1,788 people have been approved for visas and more than €1.2 billion has been invested in businesses, educational institutions and voluntary organisations.
Ms McPhillips said the scheme did have a “positive impact” but added: “It’s whether that positive impact outweighs the significant risk ... that’s what we had to assess and our assessment was it no longer did balance that risk”.
She said that view was shared by the EU and also highlighted how the UK closed its similar scheme – availed of to a large part by Russians – around the time of the invasion of Ukraine.
Ms McPhillips confirmed that none of the current beneficiaries of the Irish scheme are Russian nationals.
She said that around 94 per cent of all applications have come from China saying that at one point 1,500 of the approved applications were Chinese nationals; 31 were from the United States; 12 were from Vietnam; and 59 were from the rest of the world.
Department official William O’Dwyer – who heads up the immigration service delivery unit – said that there are currently close to 3,000 applications “on hand”.
He said “It’ll take a few months to work through the issues and to examine the applications in detail”.
Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy quizzed the justice officials on how background checks are conducted and if Ireland has the capacity to do this on sizeable numbers of people coming from places like China.
Ms McPhillips said: “It’s definitely a difficulty” and it involved “self-declaration” as well as a “very detailed process” with various international agencies and bodies.
Mr O’Dwyer said there are due diligence checks undertaken as part of Ireland’s obligations under anti-money laundering legislation. He also said sanctions lists are examined and the identities of applicants are verified.
He said there is an international convention for doing this and if certain countries are not part of it there is liaison with their ministry of foreign affairs.
Earlier this month the High Court heard how an organisation called Huawen Foundation owed some €48 million to creditors who had invested in the company through loan notes issued by the business in order to obtain visas under the IIP. Huawen Foundation was put into liquidation by a creditor last month.
Sinn Féin TD Imelda Munster raised the case at the PAC saying there are “many many questions that need to be asked from it”.
Ms McPhillips said she was not in a position to deal with individual cases and she did not think it would be appropriate to do so at the PAC.