The Government has granted Irish residency status to 55 wealthy foreigners in the past three years under a new investment scheme, with the majority being Chinese nationals, the Sunday Independent has learned.

The wealthy group of foreign tycoons were granted residency in exchange for investing in Irish bonds, stocks, property and enterprises, or for making a large philanthropic gift or endowment.

They availed of a Government-backed scheme aimed at attracting non-EEA investors, which grants successful applicants and their family members Irish residency, even though the investors don’t have to actually reside here to benefit – the only stipulation is that persons concerned must visit Ireland at least once in every 12-month period.

The scheme, which is operated by the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, has proved popular with billionaires from Russia, the Middle East and US, as well as China.

More than €40m has been invested in Ireland by approved investors to date, according to the Department of Justice.

Approved participants in the Immigrant Investor Programme are granted residence in Ireland for two years, which can be renewed for a further three years. After five years, they are entitled to apply for long-term residence in Ireland. Irish residency status can offer non-EEA investors greater ease of travel in the EU and can offer benefits in terms of tax avoidance and asset security.

In order to be considered for the programme investors have a choice of investment options: €1m in an Immigrant Investor Bond, at 0pc interest rate; €500,000 in an Irish enterprise for three years; €500,000 in an approved fund; a minimum investment of €2m in an Irish REIT (Real Estate Investment Trust) listed on the Irish Stock Exchange; investment in a residential property of a minimum value of €450,000 and a straight investment of €500,000 into the immigrant investor bond, giving a minimum investment of €950,000 – or a €500,000 philanthropic donation or endowment.

The Department of Justice denied the programme is a ‘passports for sale’-type scheme.

“The Immigrant Investor Programme offers no preferential access to Irish passports,” a spokesperson said. “The programme has made this explicit from the beginning.

“Successful applicants are subject to exactly the same rules as any other migrant as regards eligibility for an Irish passport. This requires that the person resides in Ireland for 12-months prior to their application and for four of the eight years before that.”