Freedom in the World
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Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
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The government coalition, led by the Fianna Fail party, continued to lose popularity over the course of 2004, and Fianna Fail did poorly in local and European Parliament elections. However, the government did win respect for its successful presidency of the European Union (EU) during the first six months of 2004.
The Irish Free State emerged from the United Kingdom after the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. (Six Protestant-majority counties in the province of Ulster remained within the United Kingdom.) A short civil war followed, ending in 1923. In 1937, the Irish Free State adopted a new constitution and a new name - Ireland, or Eire.
Ireland has been independent in its foreign policy, staying out of World War II and out of NATO. It joined the European Community (now the EU) along with Britain and Denmark in 1973. As a member, thanks in part to large subsidies for poorer regions within the EU, Ireland has enjoyed high rates of economic growth and has gone from being one of the poorest countries in Europe to being richer than Britain by some measures. It adopted the euro upon its launch (as an electronic currency only) in 1999 and introduced euro notes and coins in 2001.
Ireland has resisted any EU moves that would impinge on its neutrality, including the idea of setting up an EU military capability. Partly for this reason, Irish voters rejected the EU's Treaty of Nice in June 2001, temporarily blocking the enlargement of the EU into Eastern Europe. In a second referendum, in October 2002, Irish voters approved the treaty.
Growth in the gross domestic product (GDP) averaged an outstanding 8.6 percent from 1998 through 2002. The growth led to inflation and wage increases, which eroded Ireland's competitiveness. That erosion, compounded by a strong euro, which depressed exports, slowed GDP growth sharply, to 3.7 percent in 2003. The slower growth hit the government's budget, forcing the country to take a step back from the highly generous fiscal policies of previous years.
Though the economy was forecast to pick up again in 2004, the budget tightening caused by the general slowdown of 1998 - 2002 led to voter disillusionment. This was further fed by a perception that the governing coalition - Fianna Fail, with its junior coalition partner, the Progressive Democratic Party - which has been in power since 1997, had begun to grow arrogant, increasing taxes after having promised not to before the 2002 general election. As a result, Fianna Fail did poorly in local elections in June 2004, despite the fact that the elections coincided with a popular government-sponsored referendum on tightening Irish citizenship laws. The voters' verdict was reconfirmed with another poor showing for Fianna Fail in European Parliament elections later that month. Prime Minister Bertie Ahern reshuffled his cabinet in September, hoping to shore up the coalition for elections that must be held by 2006.
Ireland did win praise for its diplomacy in 2004, particularly for its success holding the EU's rotating six-month presidency for the first half of the year. The biggest event was the enlargement of the EU by 10 new countries, mostly formerly Communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe. However, Irish diplomacy also helped bring about a draft constitution for the EU that will fundamentally change how the 25-member bloc is run - if the draft is ratified by each country, not a foregone conclusion. Ahern, representing the Irish presidency, helped broker compromises between big countries and small, as well as between those who want deeper European integration and more sceptical countries. He also helped EU leaders through the bitter negotiations that led to the selection of Jose Manuel Durao Barroso of Portugal as head of the European Commission (the EU's executive).
The Irish can change their government democratically. The legislature consists of a lower house (the Dail), whose 166 members are elected by proportional representation, and an upper house (the Seanad, or Senate) of 60 members, some appointed, some elected by a body representing various interest groups. The Senate is mainly a consultative body. The president, whose powers are largely ceremonial, is directly elected for a seven-year term.
The political party system is open to the rise and fall of competing groupings. The two largest parties - Fianna Fail and Fine Gael - do not differ widely in ideological orientation, but mainly represent the opposing sides of the 1920s civil war. The smaller parties are the Labour Party, the Progressive Democrats, Sinn Fein, and the Greens.
Corruption has been an ongoing issue, with many of the scandals having involved members of Fianna Fail. A former prime minister, Charles Haughey, who headed several governments from 1979 to 1992, was discovered in 1997 to have received up to one million euros from an owner of a food and textile retailer. Though there is no direct connection of corruption to Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, he was found to have signed blank checks as party leader. Ireland was ranked 17 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The media are free and independent, and Internet access is unrestricted. The print media present a variety of viewpoints. Television and radio are dominated by the state broadcaster, RTE, but the growth of cable and satellite television is weakening its influence. The state maintains the right to censor pornographic and violent material, which critics charge is an anachronism and possibly in contravention of the European Convention on Human Rights. Government plans to reduce media access to government information have been criticized, as have plans to introduce a Press Council to regulate media conduct.
Freedom of religion is provided for in the constitution, and discrimination on the basis of religion is illegal. Though the country is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, there is no state religion. Adherents of other faiths face little trouble with religious expression. Religious education is provided in most primary and secondary schools, on whose boards sit officials of the Catholic Church. However, parents may exempt their children from religious instruction, and the constitution requires equal funding for students wishing instruction in other faiths. Academic freedom is respected.
There is freedom of assembly and association, and nongovernmental organizations can operate freely. Collective bargaining is legal and unrestricted and unions operate without hindrance. The right of public assembly and demonstration is not infringed.
The legal system is based on common law, and the judiciary is independent. In a 2003 visit, the Council of Europe found evidence of some ill-treatment, including beatings, of detainees by police, mostly at the time of their detention, but stated that the prisons are on the whole well run. Despite equal protection for all under the law, the Irish Travellers, a nomadic group of about 25,000, face social discrimination in housing, hiring, and other areas.
Inequality persists in the pay of men and women, but discrimination in employment on the basis of sex and sexual orientation is forbidden under national and EU law. The past two presidents have been women: Mary McAleese (elected in 1997 and re-elected in 2004) and Mary Robinson (1990-1997). Abortion is legal only when the life of the mother is threatened.