Ireland | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2013

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As Ireland’s economy continued to struggle in 2012, the government imposed a series of new austerity measures, including the first property tax to be imposed since 1977. After 15 years of hearings, the Mahon Tribunal released its final report in March, finding that the country is affected by widespread corruption. In an effort to address gender inequality in government, new legislation adopted in July will reduce state funding for parties if fewer than 30 percent of their candidates are women in the next general elections.

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 for many years, transforming into one of Europe’s richest countries.

The Fianna Fáil party has generally dominated Irish politics since the 1930s. Fianna Fáil succeeded in defeating Fine Gael in the 2007 general elections, and formed a governing coalition with the Green Party and the Progressive Democrats for the first time. After three consecutive terms as prime minister, Patrick “Bertie” Ahern stepped down in May 2008, due to a long-running corruption investigation into his previous activities as finance minister. Finance Minister Brian Cowen took over as prime minister that same month.

In the fall of 2008, Ireland’s economy declined sharply due to falling property values and the global financial turmoil. Ireland’s economy entered a technical depression in 2009, mostly due to government bailouts of the banking system. Support for the ruling Fianna Fáil and Green parties subsequently declined in the 2009 local elections. Following a series of resignations and defections, the number of coalition backers dropped to that of the opposition, but the coalition remained in power after agreeing in October to electoral reform.

Frustration with and distrust of the government grew following the 2010 acceptance of a US$113 billion loan package from the International Monetary Fund and the EU, which ultimately led to the implementation of harsh austerity measures. Fianna Fáil was largely blamed for failing to address the reckless lending that caused housing prices to fall, and the party’s popularity sank. 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 previous 79 years, Fianna Fáil suffered its worst defeat in elections held in February 2011, capturing only 20 seats in Parliament’s lower house. 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 were captured by independents and two smaller parties. Enda Kenny of Fine Gael was elected prime minister. With two-thirds of the seats, Kenny’s Fine Gael–Labour coalition held the largest parliamentary majority in Ireland’s history.

The country’s economic troubles continued in 2012, with unemployment at nearly 15 percent in December. The government imposed a series of new measures, including a €100 (US$130) household charge, the first property tax to be imposed since 1977. In a May referendum, Irish citizens voted overwhelmingly in favor of the EU’s Referendum on the Treaty on Stability, Coordination, and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union, which serves to tighten control over the borrowing and spending of EU member states. Ireland did, however, experience manufacturing growth in 2012, mostly due to its trade relationship with the United States, whose economy improved. In December, the Irish government passed the Personal Insolvency Bill, which will overhaul the country’s consumer debt and bankruptcy laws and substantially reduce the amount borrowers owe on mortgages.

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 various interest groups. The Senate is mainly a consultative body, in which members serve five-year terms. The prime minister, or taoiseach, is chosen by Parliament. The president, whose functions are largely ceremonial, is directly elected for a seven-year term.

Ireland’s two largest parties—Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael—do not differ widely in ideology 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—including cronyism, political patronage, and illegal donations—is a recurring problem. After 15 years of hearings, the Mahon Tribunal released its final report in March 2012, finding that corruption had affected “every level of Irish political life,” and that former prime minister Patrick “Bertie” Ahern had not been forthright about money he received while finance minister; he subsequently resigned from Fianna Fáil. Ireland was ranked 25 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The media are free and independent, and internet access is unrestricted. The print media present a variety of viewpoints. The state may censor material deemed indecent or obscene. Reforms to Ireland’s defamation legislation made in 2010 introduced the offense of blasphemous libel, with penalties of up to €25,000 (US$33,500). New copyright legislation was passed in March 2012, despite significant opposition from internet freedom groups, who argued that the law could result in injunctions against companies like YouTube and Facebook if copyrighted materials are posted by other parties. The law’s passage through a ministerial order, rather than Parliament, meant that voters could not voice their opposition to representatives. Hi-tech companies expressed concern that the law could negatively affect the growth of online business in Ireland.

Freedom of religion is constitutionally guaranteed. Although the country is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, there is no state religion, and adherents of other faiths face few impediments to religious expression. While the Catholic Church operates approximately 90 percent of Ireland’s schools—most of which provide religious education—parents may exempt their children from religious instruction; the constitution also requires equal funding for students wishing instruction in other faiths. Academic freedom is respected.

The right of public assembly and demonstration is respected. In July 2012, protesters in Dublin marched on Parliament to oppose International Monetary Fund calls for Ireland to cut its social welfare benefits. Freedom of association is upheld, and nongovernmental organizations can operate freely. Labor unions operate without hindrance, and collective bargaining is legal and unrestricted.

The legal system is based on common law, and the judiciary is independent. Prison conditions have been highlighted as dangerous, unsanitary, and overcrowded, among other issues. According to Rape Crisis Network Ireland’s 2010 National Rape Crisis Statistics and Annual Report released in November 2011, only about 30 percent of survivors of sexual violence reported the abuse to authorities, primarily due to discouragement by police.

The Irish Travellers, a traditionally nomadic group of about 25,000 people, are not recognized as an ethnic minority, and face discrimination in housing and hiring.

While employment discrimination on the basis of gender or sexual orientation is prohibited, gender inequality in wages persists, and women continue to be underrepresented in the political sphere; women comprise only 15 percent of the members of the lower house of Parliament. In July 2012, the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act 2012 was signed into law; among other changes, the legislation reduces state funding for parties if fewer than 30 percent of their candidates are women in the next general elections. Abortion is legal only when there is a “real and substantial risk” to the mother’s life. Some 150,000 Irish women have traveled to Britain for abortions since it was legalized in 1967 due to the ban on abortion inside both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. A 31-year-old dentist, Dr. Savita Halappanavar, died in a Galway hospital in October 2012 while miscarrying; she was refused an abortion by doctors because the fetus still had a heartbeat. The case reignited discussions in Ireland in 2012 over the country’s strict and unclear abortion law. In December, the Irish government claimed it would work to change the restrictions in order to allow abortions in certain circumstances, specifically when the mother’s life is at risk.

The 2010 Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act legally recognizes same-sex couples, though it denies them some rights awarded to heterosexual married couples, such as adoption rights.

Reports released by the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse in 2009 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 2011 Cloyne report revealed similar abuse and subsequent cover-ups in the diocese of Cloyne. The government has taken steps to address the abuse, which has declined in recent decades. The government has also moved to end the Catholic Church’s monopoly on Ireland’s primary education system, as 3,000 schools currently remain under the Church’s control. A referendum on a constitutional amendment introducing a new standalone article on children, which recognizes their natural and innate rights, passed with 57 percent of the vote in November 2012.