Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Economic concerns largely overshadowed politics in 2010, as hefty bank bailouts caused Ireland’s budget deficit to rise to approximately 30 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP).Amid financial austerity measures, the coalition governmentfaced decreasing popularity and difficult decisions regarding the nature of necessary cutbacks. In March, the government announced that a referendum would be held on the controversial blasphemy law that came into effect in January, though the referendum had not taken place by year’s end.
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 Éire.
Ireland joined the European Community (now the European Union, or EU) along with Britain and Denmark in 1973. Thanks in part to large subsidies from 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.
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 Patrick Bartholomew “Bertie” Ahern, combined with voter comfort after 10 years of economic growth, helped Fianna Fáil win the May 2007 general elections. Fianna Fáil 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 forced Fianna Fáil to take the Green Party into the governing coalition for the first time in that party’s history. The remaining seats were held by the Labour Party, Sinn Féin, and independents. Ahern was given a third consecutive term as prime minister in June.
In September 2007, Ahern narrowly won a vote of confidence over long-standing questions about his personal financial dealings while finance minister in the 1990s. He denied all allegations of corruption but later stepped down when evidence emerged to the contrary, and Finance Minister Brian Cowen became prime minister in May 2008.
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. They then reversed their decision in September 2009, strongly supporting the treaty in a second vote.
While the ruling Fianna Fáil 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, the number of coalition backers had dropped to equal that of the opposition. However, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party remained in power after agreeing on a governmental program in October 2009 that provided 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 economic crisis, driven by a rapid decline in property prices. The economy entered a technical depression in 2009; public finances fell into deep crisis, and the Irish banking system became extremely fragile, despite government intervention. By September 2010,the budget deficit hit €50 billion ($74 billion), or approximately 32 percent of Ireland’s gross domestic product.Much of the deficit’s ballooning growth was attributable to expensive government bailouts for the banking system.After three years of austerity measures, during which time household wealth fell by almost a third, the government continued to make painful cuts, resulting in a pessimistic political and economic climate.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
Ireland is an electoral democracy. The Parliament (Oireachtas) consists of a lower house (the Dáil), 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 Fáiland 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 Féin, and the Greens. The Progressive Democrats disbanded in 2009.
Corruption has been a recurring problem, with many scandals involving members of Fianna Fáil. 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 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 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. Reforms to Ireland’s defamation legislation passed in 2009 introduced the offense of blasphemous libel, with penalties of up to EUR 25,000 ($33,500). The new legislation, which came in effect in January 2010, stirred public outrage, prompting the government to suggest that the law be put to a referendum. However, a referendum had not been held 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.
The right of public assembly and demonstration is not legally infringed.Freedom of association is upheld, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) can operate freely. 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.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.
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. Although the past two presidents have been women—Mary Robinson (1990–97) and Mary McAleese (elected in 1997 and reelected in 2004)—women are underrepresented politically, with just 20 elected to 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 NGO 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. Allegations of sexual abuse continued in 2010, prompting a letter from Pope Benedict XVI to the Catholic people of Ireland apologizing to the victims.