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Politics of Ireland

Table of contents
1 Government
2 Northern Ireland
3 Miscellaneous
4 Related topics


The Republic of Ireland is a sovereign, independent, democratic state with a parliamentary system of government. The President of Ireland, who serves as chief of state in a largely ceremonial role, is elected for a 7-year term and can be re-elected only once. In carrying out certain constitutional powers and functions, the president is aided by the Council of State, an advisory body. On the Taoiseach's (prime minister's) advice, the president also dissolves the Dáil Éireann (lower house of Parliament. The Upper house, the Senate (Seanad Éireann) is not dissolved. Its term expires naturally after a set period after the holding of a Dáil dissolution.) A president may "in his absolute discretion" refuse a dissolution who has "ceased to retain the support of a majority in Dáil Éireann" (Article 13.2.2. of Bunreacht na hÉireann, the Irish Constitution.) Where a President does so, the Taoiseach, in accordance with Article 28.10. must resign. The President cannot commission someone to form a new government. It is for the Dáil to nominate a successor as taoiseach. The President then appoints them.

The power to refuse a dissolution is the President's most sensitive power. To date no president has refused a dissolution, though in 1982 President Hillery was put into severe pressure by the opposition Fianna Fáil party under Charles J. Haughey to refuse then taoiseach Garret FitzGerald a dissolution. Hillery admirably refused the pressure. Their antics came back to haunt Fianna Fáil in 1990, causing them to lose that year's presidential election.

The president appoints as prime minister the leader of the political party, or coalition of parties, which wins the most seats in the Dáil (house of representatives). Executive power is vested in a cabinet whose ministers are nominated by the Taoiseach and approved by the Dáil.

The bicameral Oireachtas (parliament) consists of the Seanad Éireann (senate) and the Dáil Éireann (house of representatives). The Seanad is composed of 60 members--11 nominated by the prime minister, 6 elected by the national universities, and 43 elected from panels of candidates established on a vocational basis. The Senate has the power to delay legislative proposals and is allowed 90 days to consider and amend bills sent to it by the Dáil, which wields greater power in parliament. The Dáil has 166 members popularly elected to a maximum term of 5 years under a complex system of proportional representation.

Judges are appointed by the president on nomination by the government and can be removed from office only for misbehavior or incapacity and then only by resolution of both houses of parliament. The ultimate court of appeal is the Supreme Court, consisting of the Chief Justice and five other justices. The Supreme Court also can decide upon the constitutionality of legislative acts if the president asks for an opinion.

Local government is by elected county councils and--in the cities of Dublin, Cork, Limerick, and Waterford--by county borough corporations. In practice, however, authority remains with the central government.

Irish politics remain dominated by the two political parties that grew out of Ireland's bitter 1922-23 civil war. Fianna Fáil was formed by those who opposed the 1921 treaty that partitioned the island. Although treaty opponents lost the civil war, Fianna Fáil soon became Ireland's largest political party. Fine Gael, representative of the pro-treaty forces, remains the country's second-largest party.

In recent years, however, there have been signs that this largely two-party structure is evolving. Mary Robinson of the Labour Party shocked the political establishment by winning the 1990 presidential election. Articulating a progressive agenda for Ireland's future and outspoken on social issues, Robinson represented a distinct break from the traditional politics of the two major parties. The November 1992 general election confirmed this trend. The two main parties lost ground as the Labour Party scored an historic breakthrough, winning 19% of the vote and 33 seats in the House. As a result of the election, Labour held the balance of power between the two largest parties and initially chose to go into coalition with Fianna Fáil. That government collapsed in November 1994, and Labour again demonstrated its new role when it dictated the terms of a new "rainbow" government coalition with Fine Gael and the Democratic Left.

The year 1997, however, saw a return to a more traditional model. In the June general election, Labour lost heavily and was reduced to 18 seats in the Dáil. Though Fianna Fáil did not win an outright majority, it increased its seats to 76 (currently 75) and was able to form a coalition with the much smaller (4 seats) Progressive Democrats. Fine Gael also picked up seats but was unable to form a coalition with the much-reduced Labour party. In the November 1997 presidential election, Fianna Fáil candidate Mary McAleese, a lawyer from Northern Ireland, won a record victory over four other candidates.

As a result of the 1997 elections, a minority government led by Taoiseach (prime minister) Bertie Ahern of Fianna Fáil took office. Mary Harney, who heads the Progressive Democrats Party, serves as the Tanaiste (deputy prime minister) and Minister for Enterprise, Employment, and Trade. The coalition relies on the support of four independent members to give it a governing majority. In 1999, the Labour Party absorbed the smaller party of the Democratic Left, bringing its total number of seats in the Dáil to 21 (currently 20).

Since coming to power, the government of Prime Minister Ahern has presided over a strong economy. Ireland boasts the highest growth rate of any country in the OECD over the last 3 years, low unemployment, and a surplus in the country's finances. However, the "Celtic Tiger's" inflation rate has edged up over the past year. To address this concern, Prime Minister Ahern has pledged action to curb inflation and, thereby, sustain sound economic growth. On the diplomatic front, the government has played a key role in brokering a lasting peace in Northern Ireland, in bolstering Ireland's role in the European Union, and in leading Ireland to join NATO's Partnership for Peace in 1999.

Most recently, allegations of political corruption related to property development schemes, tax avoidance by business and political leaders, as well as other scandals dating back to the late 1980s and early 1990s have surfaced. The Dáil has established two tribunals--the Flood Tribunal and the Moriarty Tribunal--to investigate these various scandals, and the work of the two tribunals will likely continue until 2001. Although several senior political leaders and members of parliament have been named in connection with the scandals, the government of Prime Minister Ahern remains stable, and most observers think it unlikely new general elections will be held before spring 2001.

Northern Ireland

Resolving the Northern Ireland problem remains a leading political issue in Ireland and is a major priority in U.S. relations with Ireland. The U.S. Government is engaged with both the Irish and British Governments on ways that the U.S. can play a constructive role in supporting the peace process in the North.

The conflict in Northern Ireland stems from the division between "Nationalist" and Unionist" segments of the Northern Ireland population: Nationalists in Northern Ireland want unification with Ireland, while Unionists want Northern Ireland to continue its union with Great Britain.

Since the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement granting Ireland a formal voice in Northern Ireland affairs, there has been an extensive dialogue between the two governments on how to bring about a peaceful, democratic resolution of the conflict. In December 1993, the "Downing Street Declaration," holding out the promise of inclusive political talks on the future of Northern Ireland, was issued. This led the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to call a "total cessation" of military operations on August 31, 1994. This was followed 6 weeks later by a similar cease-fire by the loyalist paramilitaries.

Following up on the cease-fires, the two governments in February 1995 issued a "frameworks" document, which proposed a basis for negotiations. Generally welcomed by Nationalists, it was rejected by Unionists, who disparaged it as a "blueprint for a united Ireland." Despite the negative Unionist reaction, the two governments tried to launch the negotiating process by announcing that they would hold a series of bilaterals with all the constitutional parties in the north.

The process stalled in 1995 due to disagreements between the British Government and Sinn Féin, the political arm of the IRA, about the decommissioning of IRA weapons. President Clinton's visit to Ireland in December 1995 led to the establishment later the same month of an International Commission, chaired by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, to recommend a solution to this impasse.

The January 1996 "Mitchell Report" recommended decommissioning during a talks process and was widely praised. However, the British Government decision to hold elections for a negotiating body was seen as a step backwards, and in February 1996 the IRA officially ended its cease-fire with a bomb attack in London that killed two. At the end of February the two governments announced that all-party talks would begin in June and be open to all parties disavowing violence. In May 1996 the elections were held, with Sinn Féin doing particularly well. However, the party was turned away from the negotiations, chaired by Sen. Mitchell, when they began on June 10 because of the IRA's continued campaign of violence.

Throughout the latter half of 1996 and early 1997 the negotiations made little progress. The May 1997 election of Tony Blair and the Labour Party Government in the U.K., however, re-energized the process and led to increasing pressure on the IRA/Sinn Féin to restore the cease-fire. After gaining assurances that the negotiations process would be time-limited and that decommissioning would not again become a stumbling block, the IRA did restore its cease-fire in July 1997, and Sinn Féin was admitted to the talks process in September 1997. The negotiations moved from process into substance in October 1997. In a final marathon push in April 1998, which included the personal intervention of President Clinton, all parties, on April 10, signed an agreement. The "Good Friday" (April 10 happened to be Good Friday) Agreement was put to a vote, and strong majorities in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland approved it in simultaneous referendums on May 22, 1998.

The agreement provides for a 108-member Northern Ireland elected assembly to be overseen by a 12-minister executive committee in which Unionists and Nationalists would share responsibility for governing. The agreement, which is now being implemented, also will institutionalize the cross-border cooperation with the Republic of Ireland and will create mechanisms to guarantee the rights of all. Members of the 108-seat assembly were elected on June 25. The results of the election confirm that four parties will play a dominant role in the new legislative body: the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) won 28 seats, and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) won 20 seats on the Unionist side. On the Nationalist side, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) won 24 seats and Sinn Féin, 18. Assembly members met in "shadow" mode while they prepared the procedures and modalities of the new legislative body, which assumed governing responsibilities in 1999. Following the election, the Northern Ireland Executive was created, headed by First Minister David Trimble (UUP), and Deputy Minister Seamus Mallon (SDLP) emerged in December 1999.

The issue of decommissioning has proven to be a stumbling block that, for a time, thwarted effective implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. When the UUP threatened to pull out of the powersharing Executive in February 2000 over what the UUP charged was the IRA's failure to disarm in accordance with the commitments made in the Belfast Agreement, the British Government suspended Northern Ireland's local governing body. In so doing, it sought to prevent both sides from renouncing the 1998 Good Friday Agreement altogether. Nevertheless, a substantial majority of Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland continued to support the peace process throughout the 72-day impasse.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern mediated a series of talks aimed at the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive, as high-level engagement on the part of Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the United States continued. Finally, on May 6, 2000, the IRA pledged to put its arms completely and verifiably "beyond use" in a groundbreaking statement on decommissioning. David Trimble, as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), welcomed the statement and rallied support for his party's return to the Executive. In a divided vote, 459 in favor to 403 against, the UUP decided to resume its involvement. On May 29, 2000, the British Government restored direct rule to Northern Ireland. President Clinton hailed the resumption of Northern Ireland's home rule as an important step toward the "promise of peace."

Although the reestablishment of the Executive has further reinforced popular and political support for the Good Friday Agreement, significant challenges persist. Splinter groups opposed to the peace process have committed terrorist attacks in Northern Ireland and in mainland Britain on several occasions since the Belfast Agreement was signed. The worst of these attacks took place in Omagh, Co. Tyrone in August 1998 when 29 people were killed and hundreds seriously injured. Other divisive issues that have yet to be resolved include carrying out the Patten Commission's recommendations on reform of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (Northern Ireland's police force), as well as the emotive issue of flying British and Irish flags over public buildings on holidays and special occasions.

U.S. Government policy on Northern Ireland condemns all acts of terrorism and violence, perpetrated by any party on either side. It also cautions all Americans to question closely any appeal for financial or other aid from groups involved in the Northern Ireland conflict to ensure that contributions do not end up in the hands of those who support violence, either directly or indirectly.


Country name:
conventional long form: none
conventional short form: Ireland

Data code: EI

Government type: republic

Capital: Dublin

Administrative divisions: 26 counties; Carlow, Cavan, Clare, Cork, Donegal, Dublin, Galway, Kerry, Kildare, Kilkenny, Laois, Leitrim, Limerick, Longford, Louth, Mayo, Meath, Monaghan, Offaly, Roscommon, Sligo, Tipperary, Waterford, Westmeath, Wexford, Wicklow

Independence: 6 December 1921 (from UK by treaty)

National holiday: Saint Patrick's Day, 17 March

Constitution: 29 December 1937; adopted 1 July 1937 by plebiscite

Legal system: based on English common law, substantially modified by indigenous concepts; judicial review of legislative acts in Supreme Court; has not accepted compulsory ICJ jurisdiction

Suffrage: 18 years of age; universal

Executive branch:
chief of state: President Mary MCALEESE (since 11 November 1997)
head of government: Prime Minister Bertie AHERN (since 26 June 1997)
cabinet: Cabinet appointed by the president with previous nomination by the prime minister and approval of the Dáil
elections: president elected by popular vote for a seven-year term; election last held 31 October 1997 (next to be held NA November 2004); prime minister nominated by the Dáil and appointed by the president
election results: Mary MCALEESE elected president; percent of vote - Mary MCALEESE 44.8%, Mary BANOTTI 29.6%
note: government coalition - Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats

Legislative branch: bicameral Parliament or Oireachtas consists of the Senate or Seanad Eireann (60 seats - 49 elected by the universities and from candidates put forward by five vocational panels, 11 are nominated by the prime minister; members serve five-year terms) and the House of Representatives or Dáil Éireann (166 seats; members are elected by popular vote on the basis of proportional representation to serve five-year terms)
elections: Senate - last held NA August 1997 (next to be held NA 2002); Dáil - last held 17 May]] 2002 (next to be held in 2007)
election results: Senate - percent of vote by party - Fianna Fáil 29, Fine Gael 16, Labour Party 4, Progressive Democrats 4, others 7; seats by party - NA; Dáil - percent of vote by party - NA; seats by party - Fianna Fáil 81, Fine Gael 31, Labour Party 21, Progressive Democrats 8, Green Party 6, Sinn Féin 5, Socialist Party 1, independents 13

Judicial branch: Supreme Court, judges appointed by the president on the advice of the government (prime minister and cabinet)

Political parties and leaders: Communist Party of Ireland [Michael O'Riordan]; Fianna Fáil [Bertie Ahern]; Fine Gael [Enda Kenny]; Green Party[Trevor Sargent]; Labour Party [Pat Rabbitte]; Progressive Democrats [Mary Harney]; Sinn Féin [Gerry Adams]; The Workers' Party [Marion Donnelly]

International organization participation: Australia Group, BIS, CCC, CE, EBRD, ECE, EIB, EMU, ESA, EU, FAO, AEA, IBRD, ICAO, ICC, ICC, ICFTU, ICRM, IDA, IEA, IFAD, IFC, IFRCS, ILO, IMF, International Maritime Organization, Intelsat, Interpol, IOC, IOM (observer), ISO, ITU, MINURSO, NAM (guest), NEA, NSG, OECD, OPCW, OSCE, UN, UNCTAD, UNESCO, UNFICYP, UNHCR, UNIDO, UNIFIL, UNIKOM, UNITAR, UNMIBH, UNMIK, UNMOP, UNTAET, UNTSO, UPU, WEU (observer), WHO, WIPO, WMO, WTrO, Zangger Committee

Flag description: three equal vertical bands of green (hoist side), white, and orange; similar to the flag of Côte d'Ivoire, which is shorter and has the colors reversed - orange (hoist side), white, and green; also similar to the flag of Italy, which is shorter and has colors of green (hoist side), white, and red

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