Ireland | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2014

2014 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)



Ireland was rocked by a banking scandal in 2013 after leaked tapes exposed irresponsible and disrespectful behaviour by bankers during the 2008 bailout of the Anglo Irish bank. The revelations added to many citizens’ frustration with recent austerity measures and belief that those who caused the turmoil were bailed out, while the rest of the country suffered. After a sluggish first half of the year, however, in September, the country managed to emerge from its second recession in five years. The unemployment rate also dropped to a three-and-a-half year low.

The Convention on the Constitution, which was established in December 2012, held several public sessions throughout 2013, discussing changes to the electoral system, same-sex marriage, and the role of women, among other topics. The proposals of the 100-member institution—composed of a chairman, 29 members of the Parliament, 4 party representatives, and 66 randomly selected citizens—are nonbinding, but the government has committed to responding to each of them.

Ireland’s European Union (EU) presidency in the first half of 2013 was regarded as a success, with its biggest achievement being a deal reached on the EU’s 2014–2020 budget.

In July, Irish law was modified to allow for abortions in limited circumstances.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 


Political Rights: 39 / 40 [Key]

A. Electoral Process: 12 / 12

The Irish 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.

In the 2011 parliamentary elections, the Fine Gael party won 76 seats in the lower house, but lacked a majority and was forced to enter into a coalition with the Labour Party, which took 37 seats. The Fianna Fáil party captured only 20 seats. The Green Party failed to enter Parliament, while Sinn Féin won 14 seats; independents and two smaller parties took the remaining seats. Enda Kenny of Fine Gael was elected prime minister.

Kenny has argued in favor of abolishing the Senate, contending it is too expensive to maintain and has no real powers. In an unexpected political defeat for the government, a referendum held in October 2013 on abolishing the body narrowly failed.

Throughout 2013, the Constitutional Convention discussed several changes to the current electoral system of proportional representation. Among other issues, the Convention suggested keeping the current system, but changing the size of constituencies, and lowering the voting age to 16 years.


B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 16 / 16

Ireland’s two largest parties—Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael—do not differ widely in ideology but represent opposing sides of the nation’s 1922–23 civil war. Smaller parties include the Labour Party, Sinn Féin, and the Green Party. Fianna Fáil dominated politics after Ireland became independent, holding power for 61 out of 79 years before its 2011 ouster due to corruption scandals and the mismanagement of the 2008 economic crisis. Holding two-thirds of the seats, Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael–Labour coalition currently holds the largest parliamentary majority in Ireland’s history. In 2013, opinion polls indicated that popularity was shifting between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael throughout the year.


C. Functioning of Government: 11 / 12

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.” The tribunal also found that former prime minister Patrick “Bertie” Ahern had not been forthright about money he received while finance minister, leading to his resignation from Fianna Fáil in March 2012.

Tapes leaked in the summer of 2013 about the 2008 bailout of the Anglo Irish Bank caused national outrage. The recordings suggested that the bank’s executives had been aware of the institution’s dire financial problems but did not reveal the gravity of the situation until after the government had committed to saving the bank. Ireland was ranked 21 out of 177 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index.


Civil Liberties: 58 / 60

D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 16 / 16

The media are free and independent, and internet access is unrestricted. The print media present a variety of viewpoints. Over the past few years, advertising revenues have been falling, and at least a dozen outlets have closed down. The state may censor material deemed indecent or obscene. Reforms to Ireland’s defamation legislation made in 2009 introduced the offense of blasphemous libel, with penalties of up to €25,000 (US$33,500). In January 2013, controversy erupted when the National Newspapers of Ireland trade association began suing websites for linking to articles published by its newspapers, claiming that such links represented copyright infringement.

After the suicide of Minister for State Shane McEntee in late 2012, the parliamentary Committee on Transport and Communications launched an investigation into cyber-bullying. A barrage of negative coverage on social media had reportedly factored into McEntee’s suicide. The committee’s report, published in July 2013, recommended that a new body be established to regulate social media, but that had not occurred by year’s end.

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. According to the 2012 WIN-Gallup International “Religiosity and Atheism Index,” Ireland suffered one of the biggest declines in religiosity between 2005 and 2012, with the percentage of those considering themselves religious dropping from 69 percent to 47 percent. This decline was partly due to the discovery of numerous sex abuse scandals within the clergy in recent years. 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 requesting instruction in other faiths. Academic freedom is respected.


E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 12 / 12

The right of public assembly and demonstration is respected. There were several protests in 2013 against austerity cuts, the bank debt burden, and a property tax introduced in 2012. In February, protests organized by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions drew more than 110,000 people nationwide.

Freedom of association is upheld, and nongovernmental organizations can operate freely. Labor unions operate without hindrance, and collective bargaining is legal and unrestricted.


F. Rule of Law: 15 / 16

The legal system is based on common law, and the judiciary is independent. In early 2013, the government moved forward with public sector salary and pension cuts; judges alleged that the reductions undermined their independence. Prison conditions have been highlighted as dangerous, unsanitary, and overcrowded, among other issues.

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.

The Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA)—which disarmed in 2005 after fighting for unification with Northern Ireland for 36 years—is outlawed. Several splinter groups, which have emerged over the past decades, occasionally engage in violent acts, though the threat has been more moderate in recent years. In July 2013, Irish police raided a meeting of the New IRA splinter group and arrested eight of its members, charging them with being part of an illegal group.


G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 15 / 16

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. A 2012 law reduces state funding for parties if fewer than 30 percent of their candidates are women in the next general election. A groundbreaking law was passed in July 2013, allowing for limited abortion rights in cases where the woman’s life is under threat, including the risk of suicide. Civil liberties groups welcomed the new law but argued its limited scope and the cumbersome application process still infringe on women’s rights. Around 4,000 women travel to the United Kingdom each year for legal and safe abortion services.

The 2010 Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act legally recognized same-sex couples, though it denies them some rights awarded to heterosexual married couples, such as adoption. The government has promised to hold a referendum on the issue of same-sex marriage before the next general election, scheduled for 2016.

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.


Scoring Key: X / Y (Z)

X = Score Received

Y = Best Possible Score

Z = Change from Previous Year

Full Methodology