Freedom in the World
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Ireland's standing in Europe was boosted when voters accepted a key EU treaty on enlargement in an October referendum, after its standing in Europe was damaged when voters rejected a similar referendum in 2001. Irish voters returned to power in May the Fianna Fail-Progressive Democrats coalition. The euro replaced the Irish Punt in January.
Ireland's struggle for independence dates from its conquest by England in the early Middle Ages. Ruled as a separate kingdom under the British Crown, and as part of the United Kingdom after 1800, Ireland gained some independence in 1921, when Great Britain granted dominion status to southern Ireland's 26 counties. However, six Protestant-majority counties remained within the United Kingdom. The Irish republic initially regarded the partition as provisional, but the 1998 Good Friday Agreement established the "principle of consent," that is, that a united Ireland will not come about without the consent of a majority of people in both jurisdictions. Ireland became a republic in 1948, although the constitution and Anglo-Irish agreement of April 1938 had reduced significantly the role of the United Kingdom. Since 1949, governmental responsibility has alternated between the Fianna Fail and Fine Gael parties.
The Fianna Fail and Progressive Democrats gained, in the May 17 election, a parliamentary majority for their nominally center-right coalition. The prime minister is Bertie Ahern.
Ireland voted "yes" to an October 19 referendum on the EU Nice treaty, clearing the way for 10 new EU members. In January, Ireland adopted the euro as the national currency.
The government published in July its probe of 1980s tax scams but indicated that prosecution against the 190 alleged offenders, including Charles Haughey, the former Fianna Fail prime minister, was unlikely. Although implicated in the tax scams, Ahern managed to hang onto power owing to Ireland's unprecedented economic prosperity although the double-digit gross domestic product growth fell to 3.9 percent for 2002. Nevertheless, Ireland's skilled workforce, flexible business environment, and favorable corporate tax policies make it an investment haven. The European Parliament amended the 1997 EC directive on privacy in telecommunications in May to oblige member states to retain all telecommunications data for one to two years and to provide the relevant authorities unrestricted access to these data to assist law enforcement officials in eradicating crime.
Irish citizens can change their government democratically. The Irish constitution provides for direct election of the president for a 7-year term and for a bicameral legislature consisting of a directly elected 166-seat Dail (lower house) and an indirectly chosen, 60-seat Seanad (upper house) 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 is universal; citizens over the age of 18 can vote.
Although free expression is constitutionally guaranteed, the five-member Censorship of Publications Board, established under the Censorship of Publications Act of 1946, can halt book publication. The board is widely criticized as an anachronism. Reporters Sans Frontieres ranked Ireland as having the sixth highest press freedom ranking in the world in its Worldwide Press Freedom Index for 2002.
Ireland has an independent judicial system. The president appoints judges on the advice of the government. The Garda Siochana (national police service) is under civilian control. An internal disciplinary body investigates complaints of mistreatment of detainees and prisoners.
The constitution provides for religious freedom; there is no discrimination against nontraditional religious groups. Although Ireland is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, there is no state religion. Most primary and secondary schools are denominational, and the Catholic Church partially controls their management boards. 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. There are some 25,000 Travellers, a nomadic ethnic group, comparable to the Roma (Gypsies) of continental Europe. Travellers are regularly denied access to premises, goods, facilities, services, and employment. The Employment Equality Act 1998, effective October 1999, prohibits workplace discrimination regarding family status, religious belief, age, race, sexual orientation, disability, or membership in the Travellers' community.
In December 2001, the Council of the European Union adopted by "written procedure" antiterrorist legislation requiring member states to prevent "the public" from offering "any form of support, active or passive" to terrorists and to check all refugees and asylum seekers for terrorist connections. Human rights groups criticized the legislation because it does not distinguish between conscious and subconscious assistance, treats would-be immigrants as criminals, and was not debated in parliament before being adopted.
Ireland tightened its asylum laws in 2000. Critics argue that legitimate asylum seekers do not have enough time to prepare their cases. A corollary policy of dispersing asylum seekers throughout the country was criticized for ostensibly denying fair access to quality legal representation. The police received new powers to detain and deport unsuccessful asylum seekers. Ireland and Bulgaria agreed in January 2002 to facilitate the deportation of failed Bulgarian asylum seekers, illegal immigrants, and non-EU nationals who enter Ireland illegally via Bulgaria. More than 200 Irish police officers raided homes throughout Dublin in July to oust illegal immigrants. Five failed asylum seekers and 34 illegal immigrants were arrested; most were from Eastern Europe and Africa.
Labor unions are free to organize and bargain collectively. Police and military personnel are prohibited from striking, but they may form associations to represent themselves in matters of pay and working conditions.
Transparency International ranked Ireland 23rd on its 2002 Corruption Perceptions Index, better than only France, Portugal, and Italy among EU-member states. Discrimination against women in the workplace is unlawful, but inequalities persist regarding pay and promotions in both the public and private sectors. Abortion is legal only when a woman's life is in danger; an estimated 6,500 women travel to Britain annually to obtain abortions.