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Ireland’s government, led by the Fianna Fail party, saw a further decline in popularity in its last full year before a mid-2007 election deadline. The political slide came despite still-impressive economic growth. The prime minister, Bertie Ahern, was questioned by Parliament over loans he had received while serving as finance minister; he apologized, but denied any wrongdoing.
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 neutral 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. 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 one of the richest. It adopted the euro on its launch as an electronic currency 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 bloc into Eastern Europe. In a second referendum, in October 2002, Irish voters approved the treaty.
Growth in the gross domestic product averaged an outstanding 8.6 percent from 1998 through 2002, which in turn led to inflation and wage increases, gradually eroding Ireland’s competitiveness. The trend, compounded by a strong euro, slowed growth to still-impressive rates, including 5.4 percent growth in 2005 and a similar result forecast for 2006. The slowdown nonetheless hit the government’s budget, forcing the country to take a step back from the highly generous fiscal policies of previous years.
Budget tightening soon led to voter disillusionment. This was amplified by a perception that the governing coalition—Fianna Fail and its smaller ally, the Progressive Democratic Party—had grown arrogant since coming to power in 1997, increasing taxes after having promised before the 2002 general elections not to do so. As a result, Fianna Fail did poorly in local elections in June 2004, despite the fact that they coincided with a popular government-sponsored referendum on tightening Irish citizenship laws. The voters’ verdict was confirmed 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 national elections, which must be held by mid-2007. The coalition was shown to be nine points behind a planned opposition alliance between Fine Gael and the smaller Labour Party in a mid-2006 public opinion poll.
Meanwhile, Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats have disagreed about the pace of economic reforms in the state sector. In addition, there has been intraparty strife in both the government and opposition camps; the Labour Party’s leader and deputy leader are reported to get along poorly, and Ahern has suffered backbench dissent within Fianna Fail.
The Northern Ireland peace process remained uncertain in 2006. In February, Fianna Fail ruled out any coalition with Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) militant group, or even tacit support by Sinn Fein for a Fianna Fail–led minority government. Other parties have similarly foresworn cooperation with Sinn Fein. In March, Dublin experienced some of the turmoil usually found only in Northern Ireland itself. Republicans blocked a unionist demonstration in Dublin, prompting the biggest riot the city had seen in 25 years. However, in October, an international Independent Monitoring Commission certified that the IRA had definitively abandoned armed conflict as a means to political ends.
In October, Ahern faced questions from Parliament about loans, worth approximately $65,000, that he had received from business friends during his tenure as finance minister in the early 1990s. He denied that any favors were exchanged for the loans, which he had accepted while experiencing financial difficulties accompanying the end of his marriage. He conceded, however, that some of the friends had been appointed to government boards. He said that this was due only to his relationships with them, and not due to the loans.
Ireland is an electoral democracy. 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 representatives of various interest groups. The Senate is mainly a consultative body. The president, whose functions 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 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 a recurring problem, with many scandals involving 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 the owner of a food and textile retailer. Unproven allegations of corruption have also dogged Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who was found to have signed blank checks as party leader, and accepted loans from businessmen friends while he was finance minister. In 2005, accusations of cronyism were aired relating to the appointment of allegedly unqualified but politically connected individuals to government bodies. Despite those cases, Ireland was ranked 18 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 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 practice and possibly a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.
In 2006, the government moved away from its reliance on self-regulation by the press and introduced a privacy bill that press-freedom advocates worry will hamper journalism. The bill would make it easier for individuals and companies to use legal means to end press scrutiny. For example, the bill makes “watching, besetting or following” someone a violation of privacy, even if a journalist believes the subject of scrutiny is guilty of a crime. However, the bill had not yet passed as of the end of 2006.
Freedom of religion is provided 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 impediments to religious expression. Religious education is provided in most primary and secondary schools, whose boards include 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 are freedoms of assembly and association, and nongovernmental organizations can operate freely. The right of public assembly and demonstration is not legally infringed, though Ireland experienced an unusual outbreak of violence at an attempted march by Northern Irish unionists in Dublin in 2006. Collective bargaining is legal and unrestricted, and labor unions operate without hindrance.
The legal system is based on common law, and the judiciary is independent. Council of Europe inspectors in 2003 found evidence of some ill-treatment, including beatings, of detainees by police, mostly at the time of arrest, 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 people, 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.