Freedom in the World
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In early parliamentary elections in February 2011, the Fianna Fáil party suffered a crushing defeat to the Fine Gael party, which entered into a coalition with the Labour Party. In October, former Labour Party leader Michael D. Higgins was elected Ireland’s president. The country continued to struggle with serious economic problems, though Prime Minister Enda Kenny secured an interest rate reduction on Ireland’s European Union loans. Meanwhile, tensions between the government and the Catholic Church escalated over the handling of clerical sexual abuse.
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 part of 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) in 1973. Thanks in part to large subsidies from the EU, Ireland enjoyed high rates of economic growth beginning in the mid-1990s.
The Fianna Fáil party dominated Ireland’s government since the 1930s, and Prime Minister Patrick “Bertie” Ahern helped Fianna Fáil to defeat Fine Gael in the 2007 general elections. Fianna Fáil formed a governing coalition for the first time with the Green Party and the Progressive Democrats. However, Ahern resigned in September after evidence of corruption emerged. Finance Minister Brian Cowen took over as prime minister in May 2008.
Support for the ruling Fianna Fáil and Green parties declined significantly in the June 2009 local elections. Following a series of resignations and defections, the number of coalition backers dropped to equal that of the opposition, but the coalition remained in power after agreeing on a governmental program in October that provided for electoral reform.
Frustration with and distrust of the government reached new levels in late 2010 following the acceptance of a $113 billion loan package from the International Monetary Fund and the EU, which would require harsh austerity measures. Fianna Fáil was largely blamed for failing to address the reckless lending that ultimately resulted in a burst of the country’s housing bubble, and the party’s popularity sank to 15 percent. Under serious pressure, Cowen resigned as party leader in late January 2011, and Micheál Martin took his place. The Green Party subsequently quit the coalition, leaving Fianna Fáil without a majority in Parliament. Cowen called for early elections, pledging to stay on in a caretaker capacity.
After holding power for 61 of the last 79 years, Fianna Fáil suffered its worst defeat in early elections held on February 25, capturing only 20 seats in Parliament’s lower house, down from 78 in 2007. Fine Gael won 76 seats, but lacked a majority, and was forced to enter into a coalition with the Labour Party, which took 37 seats. The Greens failed to enter Parliament, while Sinn Féin won 14 seats. The remaining seats went to independents and two smaller parties. Enda Kenny of Fine Gael was elected prime minister. Holding two-thirds of the seats, Kenny’s Fine Gael-Labour coalition held the largest parliamentary majority in Ireland’s history.
Former Labour member of parliament Michael D. Higgins was elected president on October 29 with 40 percent of the vote, replacing outgoing President Mary McAleese. Higgins successfully defeated second place contender Martin McGuiness, deputy leader of Sinn Féin and former Irish Republican Army commander, and third place Gay Mitchell of Fine Gael.
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, mostly due to 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. In a July 2011 euro-zone summit in Brussels, Kenny successfully reduced the interest rate of Ireland’s loans and extended their maturity. However, by the end of 2011, the budget deficit had climbed to €24.9 billion (approximately $30 billion).
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 various interest groups. The Senate is mainly a consultative body in which members serve five-year terms. 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 groups. The two largest parties—Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael—do not differ widely in ideological orientation but represent the opposing sides of the 1922-23 civil war. The smaller parties include the Labour Party, Sinn Féin, and the Green Party.
Corruption has been a recurring problem, particularly in the form of undue political influence through cronyism, political patronage, favors, and donations. In November 2011, Ireland ratified the United Nations Convention Against Corruption. Likely due to the low levels of petty corruption, Ireland was ranked 19 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 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 material deemed indecent or obscene, which critics charge is an anachronistic practice and possibly a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. Reforms to Ireland’s defamation legislation, which came into effect in January 2010, introduced the offense of blasphemous libel, with penalties of up to €25,000 ($33,500). After taking power in March 2011, the Fine Gael-Labour coalition pledged to remove blasphemy from the constitution; however, no action had been taken by year’s end.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed by 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. The Catholic Church operates approximately 90 percent of Ireland’s schools, most of which provide religious education. However, parents may exempt their children from religious instruction, and the constitution requires equal funding for students wishing instruction in other faiths. In 2011, the government established a working group charged with wresting control of half the country’s primary schools from the Church. Academic freedom is respected.
The right of public assembly and demonstration is not legally infringed. Freedom of association is upheld, and nongovernmental organizations 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. A February 2011 report by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment criticized prison conditions in Ireland as dangerous, unsanitary, and overcrowded, with poor health services and problems of drug abuse, among other issues. The report sparked discussions over reforming the country’s penitentiary system.
Despite equal protection for all under the law, the Irish Travellers, a traditionally nomadic group of about 25,000 people, are not recognized as an ethnic minority, and face discrimination in housing, hiring, and other areas.
While discrimination in employment on the basis of sex or sexual orientation is prohibited, gender inequality in wages persists. Although the previous two presidents were female, women continue to be underrepresented in the political sphere. Abortion is legal only when there is “real and substantial risk” to the life of the mother. In December 2010, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Ireland had violated this constitutional right in denying a pregnant woman with cancer an abortion.
The 2010 Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act, which came into effect in January 2011, legally recognizes same-sex couples, although it denies them some rights awarded to heterosexual married couples, such as adoption rights.
Reports released in 2009 by the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse documented decades of widespread physical and emotional abuse against children in state institutions and by Catholic priests, as well as collusion to hide the abuse. The Cloyne report, which was released in July 2011, documented such abuse and subsequent cover ups in the diocese of Cloyne. In response, Prime Minister Enda Kenny criticized the Vatican, and pledged to implement new laws that would require citizens to report information on child abuse. The Vatican reacted by recalling its envoy to Dublin. Further tensions between the government and the Catholic Church stemmed from conflict over whether Ireland’s churches should bear more of the financial responsibility in compensating victims of clerical sexual abuse, as the government has already paid some $2 billion in compensation to victims.