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Ireland's standing in Europe was damaged when voters rejected a key European Union (EU) treaty on enlargement in a June referendum. Poor electoral turnout was considered a major factor in the Nice Treaty's defeat, although Ireland is expected to ratify it in a further vote to be held before the end of 2002.
Ireland's struggle to maintain identity and independence dates from the beginning of its conquest by England in the early Middle Ages. Ruled as a separate kingdom under the British Crown and, after 1800, as an integral part of the United Kingdom, Ireland received a measure of independence in 1921 when Great Britain granted dominion status to the 26 counties of southern Ireland. Six Protestant-majority counties chose to remain within the United Kingdom. The partition has long been regarded as provisional by the Irish republic, which until recently remained formally committed to incorporation of the northern counties into a unified Irish nation. Since 1949, governmental responsibility has tended to alternate between the Fianna Fail and Fine Gael parties.
Ongoing investigations into alleged financial improprieties by former Prime Minister Charles Haughey and other members of the ruling Fianna Fail party continued in 2001. Haughey allegedly siphoned funds intended for the party for personal use. Current Prime Minister Bertie Ahern signed several blank checks for Haughey while acting as Fianna Fail chief whip in the late 1970s. Over the past several years, Ireland has instituted numerous tribunals and inquiries to deal with corruption claims. In January 2001, a member of the Irish parliament was fined and jailed temporarily for failing to cooperate with an inquiry into alleged planning corruption. However, in spite of these unresolved allegations, Bertie Ahern's sometimes frail coalition continued to stay in power, at least partly as a result of the country's unprecedented economic prosperity: Ireland is Europe's fastest-growing economy, and at seven percent per year, the Irish economy has grown twice as fast as the U.S. economy over the last five years.
Ireland achieved "full employment" in 2000, and with labor in short supply, the country continued to experience an immigration reversal, with more people, including many expatriates, moving to Ireland than leaving. Because of its skilled workforce, flexible business environment, and favorable corporate tax policies, Ireland has also become an investment haven, especially for U.S. high-technology and Internet companies. The economy has become heavily dependent on the foreign-owned manufacturing sector, which accounts for half of all manufacturing jobs and 80 percent of manufactured exports. However, the slowdown in the global technology sector started to adversely affect Irish industry in 2001.
In July, the government took steps to address issues pertaining to the rejection of the Nice Treaty by voters in a poorly attended referendum held in June. It indicated a willingness to give the national parliament greater powers to scrutinize proposals under consideration by EU ministers, as well as expressing its intention to establish a national consultative forum to consider Ireland's future position in the EU. The government has also indicated, however, that it does not wish to seek an opt-out from Europe's "rapid reaction" military force. While Ireland maintains a policy of neutrality, it is a member of the NATO-led Partnership for Peace program.
Irish citizens can change their government democratically. The Irish constitution, adopted in 1937, provides for direct election of the president for a seven-year term and for a bicameral legislature consisting of a directly elected 166-seat lower house (Dail) and an indirectly chosen 60-seat upper house (Seanad) with power to delay, but not veto, legislation. The cabinet, which is responsible to the Dail, is headed by a prime minister, who is the leader of the majority party or coalition and is appointed by the president for a five-year term on the recommendation of the Dail. Suffrage in universal; citizens over 18 can vote.
Ireland has an independent judicial system that includes a district court with 23 districts, a circuit court with eight circuits, the high court, the court of criminal appeals, and the supreme court. The president appoints judges on the advice of the government. In June, following a referendum, the death penalty was removed from the Irish constitution (it had been effectively abolished in 1990).
The national police service, or Garda Siochana, is under effective civilian control and has primary responsibility for internal security. Complaints regarding the mistreatment of detainees and prisoners while in police custody are investigated by an internal disciplinary body. Observers raised concerns in 2001 regarding the treatment of prisoners who suffer from mental illness. A report by the Irish Penal Reform Trust published in April focused on the imposition of solitary confinement, for prolonged periods and in sometimes squalid conditions, on mentally ill detainees.
Although free expression is constitutionally guaranteed, the five-member Censorship of Publications Board under the jurisdiction of the ministry of justice is empowered to halt publication of books. The board was established under the Censorship of Publications Act of 1946 and is frequently criticized as an anachronism by civil libertarians.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the government does not hamper the teaching or practice of any faith. Even though Ireland is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, there is no state religion and no discrimination against nontraditional religious groups. However, most primary and secondary schools are denominational, and their boards of management are partially controlled by the Catholic Church. Although religious instruction is an integral part of the curriculum, parents may exempt their children from such instruction.
The rights of ethnic and racial minorities are generally respected, although increased levels of racial discrimination and violence have accompanied the growing immigration of foreign workers. In August, police investigated a number of racist websites, most based outside the country, which promoted messages such as "Say No to Black Ireland." There are some 25,000 nomadic persons who regard themselves as a distinct ethnic group called Travellers, roughly analogous to the Roma (Gypsies) of continental Europe. Travellers are regularly denied access to premises, goods, facilities, and services; many employers do not hire them. The Employment Equality Act of 1998 that came into force in October 1999 extends protection against discrimination in the workplace to include family status, religious belief, age, race, sexual orientation, disability, and membership in the Travellers community.
While Ireland moved to loosen its immigration laws in 2000 because of its economic boom and need for foreign labor, it drew criticism for passing tougher restrictions against asylum seekers. Ireland has become an attractive destination for asylum seekers from Africa and Eastern Europe. The new laws allow for longer detention periods of asylum seekers and reduce the amount of time applicants can prepare for judicial review from three months to 14 days. Critics of the new laws complained that those with legitimate claims would not have enough time to prepare their cases. A corollary policy of dispersing asylum seekers throughout the country was criticized for putting many refugee claimants at an unfair disadvantage since they could ostensibly be denied fair access to quality legal representation. The police were also given new powers to detain and deport unsuccessful asylum seekers.
Discrimination against women in the workplace is unlawful, but inequalities persist regarding pay and promotions in both the public and private sectors. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Ireland ranks in 55th place in terms of female political representation; 12 percent of the members of the lower house and 18 percent of the upper house of parliament are women. Women's reproductive rights are limited: abortion is legal only when a woman's life is in danger, and an estimated 6,500 women travel to Britain annually to obtain abortions. An upcoming referendum planned by the government would restrict this right further by disallowing the risk of suicide by an expectant mother as grounds for terminating a pregnancy.
Labor unions are free to organize and bargain collectively. About 55 percent of workers in the public and private sectors are union members. Police and military personnel are prohibited from striking, but they may form associations to represent themselves in matters of pay and working conditions. Occasional strikes took place throughout 2001.