Ireland | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2010

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The ruling Fianna Fail and Green parties saw a sharp drop in support in local elections in June 2009. While they continued to govern, a series of resignations and defections left them with equal support in Parliament to the opposition. Irish voters also reversed their 2008 decision and approved the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty in October. Meanwhile, Ireland struggled with continued financial hardship throughout the year.

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 slowed to a still-impressive 5.7 percent in 2006. With slower growth, budget tightening fueled voter disillusionment. However, a strong debate performance by Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, combined with voter comfort after 10 years of economic growth, helped Fianna Fail to win the May 2007 general 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 opposition 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 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 as finance minister in the 1990s. He had denied granting favors in exchange for loans from businessmen friends, however evidence emerged in 2008 that money under his control as finance minister had been lent interest-free to a former business partner. It was also revealed that he had received bank deposits in British pounds, something he had earlier denied. He finally agreed to step down, 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 to pass 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. However, Irish voters reversed their decision in September 2009, strongly supporting the treaty in a second vote.
While the ruling Fianna Fail and Green parties saw a significant decline in support in local elections in June 2009, the coalition subsequently won a motion of confidence in Parliament. As a result of a series of resignations and defections—many in protest of government policies—the number of coalition backers had dropped to equal that of the opposition by early August 2009. However, Fianna Fail and the Green Party continued in power after agreeing on a governmental program in October, which provides for electoral reform, such as the establishment of an independent electoral commission and changes to rules for political donations.

Ireland has faced severe economic problems in conjunction with the global crisis, driven by a rapid decline in property prices. In 2009 the economy entered a technical depression, with public finances in deep crisis and the Irish banking system extremely fragile despite government intervention.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

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, Sinn Fein, and the Greens. The Progressive Democrats disbanded in 2009.
Corruption has been a recurring problem, with many scandals involving members of Fianna Fail. In March 2009, a former department of justice official was jailed for his role in a scheme to extend visas for Chinese students in exchange for bribes. Separately, a former government press secretary was convicted in May of bribery related to land deals in Dublin in the 1990s. In October, the speaker of the Parliament stepped down amid criticism that he had claimed personal expenses as a minister, though he denied the allegations against him. A 2009 report by Transparency International Ireland stated that the greatest concern was so-called legal corruption in the form of undue political influence through cronyism, political patronage and favors, donations, and other contacts that influence political decisions and behavior. Likely due to the low levels of petty corruption, Ireland was ranked 14 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 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. A defamation bill passed in 2009 decriminalized defamation in Ireland; a controversial provision for the offense of blasphemy had not come into force by year’s end.
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.
Freedom of association is upheld, and nongovernmental organizations can operate freely. The right of public assembly and demonstration is not legally infringed. 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. While prison conditions have improved in recent years, overcrowding remains a problem. Despite equal protection for all under the law, the Irish Travellers, a traditionally 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, has seen public opinion move against immigration as the economy has worsened. A 2009 EU study found that there were 224 racially-motivated crimes reported in Ireland in 2007, a 29.5 percent increase over 2006.
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). However, women are underrepresented politically, with just 20 elected to the parliament in 2007. 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. An Irish nongovernmental organization that works with women in the sex trade has reported an increase in prostitution as well as human trafficking in Ireland.
A 2009 bill gives same-sex couples the right to civil partnership, but denies equal access to the protections received by families with married parents. The much-publicized Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, investigating claims of abuse in state schools and orphanages since the 1940s, submitted two reports in 2009 that exposed widespread physical and emotional abuse against children in state institutions as well as by Catholic priests.