Ireland is a stable democracy in which political rights and civil liberties are respected and defended. There is some limited societal discrimination, especially against the traditionally nomadic Irish Travellers. Corruption scandals have plagued the police force, and domestic violence remains a problem.
- In a May referendum, voters struck down a constitutional clause that mandated a years-long waiting period for separated couples seeking divorce.
- In August, Ireland’s public data regulator ruled that the government’s wide-ranging retention of data from welfare card applicants violated existing data laws, though the government vowed to appeal its ruling in September.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
The Taoiseach, or prime minister, is nominated by House of Representatives (Dàil Eireann) and formally appointed by the president. Thus, the legitimacy of the prime minister is largely dependent on the conduct of Dàil elections, which historically have free and fair. The Dàil elected Leo Varadkar, of the Fine Gael party, as Taoiseach in June 2017 after his predecessor, Enda Kenny, also of Fine Gael, stepped down after six years in office. The son of an Indian immigrant and openly gay, Varadkar is also Ireland’s youngest-ever Taoiseach, elected when he was 38 years old.
The president is elected to up to two seven-year terms, and as chief of state has mostly ceremonial duties. Michael D. Higgins was reelected in 2018. Voting in presidential elections has historically been free and fair.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
The Dàil’s 158 members are elected in multimember districts through a proportional representation system, and their terms last five years. The Senate (Seanad Éireann) contains 60 seats; 43 members are indirectly chosen through an electoral college, while 11 are selected by the Taoiseach and 6 are selected from constituencies that represent some higher education institutions.
The 2016 Dàil election saw no major irregularities or unequal campaigning. Fine Gael remained the largest party, but with far fewer seats than it had taken in the 2011 general election, while Fianna Fáil more than doubled its share of the vote. Fine Gael formed a minority government with the support of some independent lawmakers and through a confidence-and-supply arrangement with Fianna Fáil, which is due to expire in 2020. (Under such arrangements, an opposition party agrees to support a minority government in confidence votes and matters relating to the budget, but may oppose it on other matters.)
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||4.004 4.004|
Ireland’s electoral framework is strong and government bodies are able to hold credible polls. There is no electoral commission in Ireland, but the government gave initial approval for a bill to create one in December 2019; it was referred to a parliamentary committee and remained under consideration at year’s end.
Ireland has frequent referendums, especially on European Union (EU) treaties. While there is no evidence of interference in elections or referendums to date, Varadkar has previously emphasized the need to strengthen Ireland’s data protection systems to safeguard against interference in future polls.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?||4.004 4.004|
Political parties in Ireland are free to form and compete. The two main parties—Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael—do not differ widely in ideology; they represent the successors of opposing sides in the nation’s 1922–23 civil war. Other key parties include the Labour Party, Sinn Féin, and the Green Party. A record number of independent lawmakers, 23, entered the Dàil in 2016.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||4.004 4.004|
Opposition parties generally do not encounter restrictions or harassment that affects their ability to gain power through elections, though Fianna Fáil has historically dominated Irish politics. Fine Gael became the Dàil’s largest party in 2011.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?||4.004 4.004|
People’s political choices are generally free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, and other powerful groups.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||4.004 4.004|
Women are active in politics but are underrepresented, holding 21 percent of the Dàil’s seats at year’s end.
While ethnic and other minorities are generally free to participate in politics, members of the Irish Traveller and Romany communities have little representation. Efforts to include them in political processes are minimal. Travellers were formally recognized as an indigenous ethnic group in 2017, the same year the National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy 2017–21 was launched. The Council of Europe called that strategy ineffective in a June 2019 report, however.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||4.004 4.004|
Elected officials freely determine government policy.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||3.003 4.004|
Ireland has a recent history of problems with political corruption, but has introduced anticorruption legislation in recent years. The Corruption Offences Act, which took effect in 2018, modernized and consolidated existing anticorruption laws, though critics claimed that the legislation did not adequately address bribery. In August 2019, the Department of Justice conceded the legislation did not fully comply with Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) guidelines.
Scandals involving Ireland’s police force (An Garda Síochána) have raised concerns about a lack of safeguards against corruption in that sector.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||4.004 4.004|
The public has broad access to official information under the 2014 Freedom of Information Act, though partial exemptions remain for the police and some other agencies. A Transparency Code requires open records on the groups and individuals that advise public officials on policy.
The government has been criticized for failing to consult meaningfully with civil society groups and relevant stakeholders in policy formulation, particularly regarding the Romany community, Travellers, and people living with disabilities.
|Are there free and independent media?||4.004 4.004|
Irish media are free and independent, and present a variety of viewpoints. However, the Irish media sector is highly concentrated, with Independent News and Media (INM) controlling much of the newspaper market. Media outlets have also complained of restrictive defamation laws in recent years.
The state may censor material deemed indecent or obscene, but this provision is rarely invoked. References to criminal blasphemy were removed from the constitution in 2018, after voters elected to eliminate the offense in a referendum that year.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||4.004 4.004|
Freedom of religion is constitutionally guaranteed. Although religious oaths are still required from senior public officials, there is no state religion, and adherents of other faiths face few impediments to religious expression. In recent years, Ireland has faced a notable decline in religiosity following a series of sexual abuse and other scandals involving the Roman Catholic Church and Catholic clergy.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||4.004 4.004|
Academic freedom is respected. The Catholic Church operates approximately 90 percent of Ireland’s schools and most schools include religious education, but parents may exempt their children from it. The constitution requires equal funding for schools run by different denominations.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||4.004 4.004|
There are no significant impediments to open and free private discussion, including in personal online communications. However, the government’s retention of data has caused controversy in 2019. In August, the Data Protection Commission (DPC) ruled that the government’s wide-ranging retention of data pertaining to welfare card applicants violated existing data protection laws. The government vowed to appeal the DPC ruling in September.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||4.004 4.004|
The right to assemble freely is respected, and peaceful demonstrations are held each year.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||4.004 4.004|
Freedom of association is upheld, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) can operate freely.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||4.004 4.004|
Labor unions operate without hindrance, and collective bargaining is legal and unrestricted.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||4.004 4.004|
Ireland has a generally independent judiciary and a legal system based on common law. In 2014, the Council of Europe’s anticorruption body, GRECO, recommended the establishment of a Judicial Council and an improvement to judicial appointments procedures. A bill to create a Judicial Council was approved by the Seanad in December 2019, and will be considered by the Dàil in 2020.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||4.004 4.004|
Due process generally prevails in civil and criminal matters. However, the police force has been affected by repeated corruption scandals in recent years. A new police commissioner was appointed in 2018; his predecessor resigned in 2017 after the irregular use of breathalyzer tests and questions about her approach toward whistleblowers stoked controversy.
A series of official inquiries in recent years have detailed decades of past physical and emotional abuse—including forced labor as recently as 1996—against women and children in state institutions and by Catholic priests and nuns, as well as collusion to hide the abuse. In 2015, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that the state was liable for sexual abuse in schools; Ireland subsequently launched a compensation scheme for sexual abuse survivors. In July 2019, an Irish judge ruled that some applicants were inappropriately denied compensation, and Varadkar issued a state apology over sexual abuse in schools later that month.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||3.003 4.004|
Irish prisons and detention facilities are frequently dangerous, unsanitary, overcrowded and ill-equipped for prisoners with mental illness. The government continues to make progress in addressing a 2015 Council of Europe report that criticized the continued lack of toilet access in some cells.
Some politicians and communities have expressed concern about the impact of the United Kingdom’s impending departure from the EU (known as Brexit) on aspects of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended a period of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles; some concerns relate to a perceived risk of unrest at the Northern Ireland border. However, the threat of violence in Ireland remained low in 2019.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||3.003 4.004|
While existing legislation bans hate speech, Ireland lacks comprehensive hate-crime legislation or a national action plan to combat hate-based crime. Civil society groups consider government policies insufficient, and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) called on Ireland to actively address racial discrimination in December 2019. The Council of Europe separately reported that Irish Travellers continued to face discrimination in housing, hiring, education, and the provision of social services in 2019.
There are concerns that people with disabilities face housing issues, are persistently institutionalized, and have suffered a severe reduction of social benefits in recent years.
Irish law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, but some social stigma against LGBT+ people persists. In 2015, the Dàil legislated to curtail an exemption that allowed health and educational institutions run by religious entities to practice employment discrimination on religious grounds—for example, on the basis of sexual orientation.
The asylum application process is complex, and asylum seekers can be housed for lengthy periods in poor living conditions. The 2015 International Protection Law expedites asylum procedures, but focuses on enabling deportations rather than identifying and processing cases. In July 2019, the Irish Refugee Council (IRC), an NGO that supports asylum seekers, warned that Ireland was violating an EU directive that establishes standards for their living conditions.
Discrimination in the workplace on the basis of gender is illegal, but gender inequality in wages persists.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||4.004 4.004|
There are no restrictions on travel or the ability to change one’s place of residence, employment, or education.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||4.004 4.004|
Private businesses are free to operate, and property rights are generally respected.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||4.004 4.004|
Individuals in Ireland have gained expanded social freedoms in recent years. In a 2015 referendum, voters extended marriage rights to same-sex couples. That same year, the Children and Family Relationships Act extended adoption rights to same-sex and cohabiting couples, and the Gender Recognition Act allowed transgender individuals to obtain legal recognition without medical or state intervention, and—for married transgender people—without divorcing. In a 2018 referendum, voters abolished a constitutional amendment that made nearly all abortions illegal, and health providers began performing abortions in January 2019.
That same month, Ireland enacted the Domestic Violence Act 2018, which criminalized forms of emotional and psychological abuse. However, domestic and sexual violence against women remain serious problems, and marginalized and immigrant women have particular difficulty accessing support.
In May 2019, Irish voters struck down a constitutional clause mandating a years-long waiting period for separated couples seeking to divorce.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||4.004 4.004|
People generally enjoy equality of opportunity. Workers have rights and protections under employment legislation. Although the government works to combat human trafficking and protect victims, undocumented migrant workers remain at risk of trafficking and labor exploitation.
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