Freedom in the World
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Ireland's government, led by the Fianna Fail Party, saw its poll ratings dip in 2005 despite an economy that continued to show steadily impressive economic growth. Two opposition parties agreed on a prospective electoral alliance for the next general election, due by 2007. The confirmed decommissioning of weapons by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Northern Ireland gave a boost to one of the Irish republic's most important foreign-policy priorities.
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 brief 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 NATO. It joined the European Community (now the European Union, or 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 on 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 averaged 8.6 percent from 1998 through 2002. This outstanding growth led to inflation and wage increases, which eroded Ireland's competitiveness. That erosion, compounded by a strong euro, has slowed growth to still-impressive rates, including 4.5 percent growth in 2004 and a similar result forecast for 2005. The slower growth has nonetheless 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 after the 1998-2002 period 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 before the 2002 general election not to do so. 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 2004, hoping to shore up the coalition before elections, which must be held by 2007.
Ireland won praise for its diplomacy in 2004, particularly for its success in 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. Irish diplomacy also helped bring about a draft constitution for the EU that would fundamentally change how the 25-member bloc is run. However, after French and Dutch voters rejected that constitution in referendums in 2005, the constitution is now all but dead.
The governing coalition, led by Fianna Fail in partnership with the much smaller Progressive Democratic Party, was shown several points behind a prospective opposition alliance between Fine Gael and the smaller Labour Party in an August poll. At a Labour Party conference, delegates voted in favor of an electoral alliance for the next general election, which is due by 2007. Meanwhile, Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats have disagreed about the pace of economic reforms in the state sector.
In September 2005, an independent commission confirmed that the IRA had decommissioned (that is, destroyed or permanently put out of use) its weapons. The decommissioning took place after a high-profile bank robbery linked to the IRA caused the British and Irish governments to put heavy pressure on the militia to disarm and return to the peace process. New hope for the peace process in Northern Ireland, a British province, is a success in one of Ireland's most cherished foreign-policy objectives. Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, is represented in the Irish parliament.
Citizens of Ireland can change their government democratically. The legislature consists of a lower house (the Dail), whose 166 members are elected by proportional representation for five-year terms, and an upper house (the Seanad, or Senate) with 60 members, some appointed and 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 prime minister is chosen by parliament.
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 scandals having involved members of Fianna Fail. Charles Haughey, a former prime minister 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. In 2005, accusations of cronyism were aired relating to the appointment of allegedly unqualified but politically connected individuals to government bodies. Ireland was ranked 19 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 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 anachronistic measure and possibly in contravention of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Government plans to introduce a mandatory press council continued to provoke debate in 2005. The government hopes both to relax defamation laws to include a defense of "fair approach" (that is, an honest mistake committed by journalists who reasonably believed their statements to be true) and to prevent intrusions into privacy by setting common standards of practice through the new council. Proposals to make the council mandatory, with government-appointed members, raised concerns about keeping the proper distance between government and the press.
Freedom of religion is provided for in the constitution, and discrimination on the basis of religion is illegal. Although the country is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, there is no state religion, and adherents of other faiths face few difficulties 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. The right of public assembly and demonstration is not infringed. Collective bargaining is legal and unrestricted, and unions operate without hindrance.
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 prisons are generally 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 pay rates for 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 reelected in 2004) and Mary Robinson (1990-1997). Abortion is legal only when the life of the mother is in danger.