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Bertie Ahern was forced to step down as prime minister in May 2008, after a long-running investigation into his previous activities as finance minister undermined his position. His replacement, Brian Cowen, was not expected to substantially change government policy, but he took over at a difficult time. By voting “no” to the Lisbon Treaty, which had aimed to reorganize the European Union’s institutions and other functions, Ireland in June garnered international attention and brought the bloc’s reform efforts to a halt. Ireland’s economy also turned sharply downward in the fall as a global financial crisis set in.
The Irish Free State emerged from the United Kingdom under the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, though six 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 remained 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 countries within the EU, Ireland enjoyed high rates of economic growth for many years, transforming from one of the poorest countries in Europe into 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 plans to set 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.
The country achieved outstanding economic growth 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 5.7 percent in 2006.
With slower growth, budget tightening fueled 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; the government increased taxes after having promised before the 2002 general elections not to do so. As a result, Fianna Fail did poorly in local and EU elections in 2004. Prime Minister Bertie Ahern reshuffled his cabinet in September 2004, hoping to shore up the coalition.
Most polls predicted that the chief opposition party, Fine Gael, would win the May 2007 general elections. However, a strong debate performance by Ahern, combined with voter comfort after 10 years of economic growth, helped Fianna Fail to come back and win the elections. Ahern was given a third consecutive term as prime minister in June. Fianna Fail captured 78 of 166 seats in the lower house of Parliament, compared with Fine Gael’s 51. However, the poor performance by the Progressive Democrats, who lost six of their eight seats, forced Fianna Fail to take the Green Party, with its six seats, into the governing coalition for the first time in that party’s history. The inclusion of both the center-left Greens and the center-right, free-market Progressive Democrats had the potential to increase internal coalition tensions. The rest of the lower house’s seats were held by the Labour Party (20), Sinn Fein (4), and independents (5).
In September 2007, Ahern narrowly won a vote of confidence over long-standing questions about his personal financial dealings in the 1990s, when he was finance minister. He had denied granting favors in exchange for loans he received from businessmen friends. However, such questions continued to dog the prime minister. In the first half of 2008, evidence emerged that money under his control as finance minister had been lent interest-free to a former business partner. In addition, it was revealed that he had received bank deposits in British pounds, something he had earlier denied. He finally agreed to step down, conceding that the investigation was hampering his ability to govern, and Finance Minister Brian Cowen became prime minister in May.
Soon after Cowen’s installation, Irish voters rejected the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, designed to replace a draft EU constitution that had failed French and Dutch referendums in 2005. Despite their general enthusiasm for EU membership, Irish voters were swayed in part by a series of false allegations about the treaty, including that it would force Ireland to legalize abortion and would lead to the creation of an EU army. The “no” vote threatened to isolate the country from other members of the 27-member union. After Ireland was offered assurances on the contentious issues, a second vote appeared likely to occur in 2009.
Cowen also faced a sharp downturn in the economy in the fall, driven by a rapid decline in property prices. The situation was exacerbated by global financial turmoil stemming from U.S. markets. The crisis forced the government to guarantee all deposits and debts for six major financial institutions, and the state budget was expected to move rapidly into deficit. After years of impressive growth, the sharp slowdown expected may be particularly politically painful for the Irish government.
Ireland is an electoral democracy. The Parliament (Oireachtas) 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, 11 appointed and 49 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, or taoiseach, 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. Allegations of corruption also forced the 2008 resignation of Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who was found to have signed blank checks as party leader, accepted loans from businessmen friends while he was finance minister, and engaged in other financial dealings viewed as suspicious. In 2005, accusations of cronyism were aired relating to the appointment of allegedly unqualified individuals to government bodies. Despite such cases, Ireland was ranked 16 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 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, 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.
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.
The freedom of association is upheld, 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 2006 found evidence of some beatings and other ill-treatment of detainees by police, mostly at the time of arrest, but statedthat 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. Ireland, which had been remarkably tolerant of a large influx of immigrants into its relatively homogenous population during the boom years, saw public opinion move against immigration in 2008 as the economy worsened.
Inequality persists in pay rates for men and women, but discrimination in employment on the basis of sex or 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 (1990–97). Abortion is legal only when the life of the mother is in danger, and women seeking abortions frequently travel to Britain to have them performed.