The history of Ireland is, by any standard, a troubled and often tragic one. The most enduring features of it are, firstly, an unswerving commitment to Catholicism on the part of the majority of the population, the origins of which can be traced back to the pioneering monastic orders of the fifth and sixth centuries. Secondly, there is the frequent uncertainty and instability governing Anglo-Irish relations: Ireland was never so fully conquered that it absorbed the culture and way of life of its larger neighbor. There followed after the monastic age a long struggle against the Viking invaders who sought to use Ireland as a base for trade with continental Europe. The Vikings built heavily fortified ports, thereby laying the foundations of some of Ireland’s major cities, including Dublin, Limerick and Waterford.
It was a war between the Irish chieftains and the Vikings which first led to the involvement of the English. Richard of Clare, Earl of Pembroke (nicknamed Strongbow), was invited by one the chieftains to support his claims, but instead Strongbow conquered almost the entire country with only a tiny force of archers and mounted knights in 1169-70. A stream of Norman families moved across the Irish Sea, effectively colonizing the country and coming into conflict with the Irish tribal system. Repeated and largely unsuccessful efforts from the 14th century onwards were made to bring the island under control. The turbulent and increasingly polarized political life of Ireland took a new and bitter twist after the English Civil War, when the Irish rose in favor of the deposed monarchy in 1649.
The victorious Oliver Cromwell led an army across the Irish Sea and the rebellion was ruthlessly put down. Over the next few years, all Catholic land was expropriated and given to a new wave of Protestant immigrants. The subsequent Act of Union, passed in 1801, incorporated the whole of Ireland, along with England, Scotland and Wales, into the United Kingdom. However, the grossly inadequate response of the Government to the potato famine of 1845/6, which decimated the Irish population through death and emigration, highlighted its lack of interest in the welfare of the Irish people. Various independence movements pursued an almost continuous struggle against the Government until Home Rule was granted in 1920 (the Easter Rising of 1916, centered on the Main Post Office in Dublin, was a particular landmark).
The terms of independence stipulated that Ireland be partitioned into two parts. The reason was that in the northern provinces, where most Protestants had settled three centuries earlier, there was fierce opposition to the prospect of being ruled by a government drawn from the country’s Catholic majority. Six of the nine counties of the historic province of Ulster therefore remained in the United Kingdom. The other 26 counties became the Irish Free State. The ensuing civil war in the south between supporters and opponents of the agreement gave rise to the country’s two main political parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. In 1937, the Irish Free State was given full sovereignty within the Commonwealth, a new constitution having been adopted, and remaining links with Britain dissolved.
In 1949, the 26 counties became a republic and formal ties with the Commonwealth were ended. In 1973, at the same time as Denmark and the UK, Ireland became a member of (as it then was) the EEC. European membership has proved to be of huge economic benefit to Ireland. Since the 1970s, Ireland has been governed alternately by Fianna Fáil and a coalition of Fine Gael and the smaller Labor Party. Ireland’s spectacular economic growth in the last 20 years has been accompanied by a new element of graft in Irish politics. The career of Charles Haughey (‘The Boss’), who was Taioseach (Prime Minister) on several occasions during the 1980s and early 1990s, was typical of this trend.
At the 1997 election for the Dáil (lower chamber of Parliament), once again no single party secured an overall majority. Fianna Fáil leader Bertie Ahern formed a new government in alliance with the support of the small Progressive Democrats (a split from Fianna Fáil) and several independents. Ahern’s new administration officially took office at the end of June with Mary Harney of the PD as Deputy Prime Minister (Tanaiste), the first woman ever to hold the position. Ahern’s relatively successful tenure ensured that the electorate returned his Fianna Fáil-led coalition with an increased majority at the most recent poll in May 2002.
Under Ahern’s government, Ireland has continued its phenomenal economic growth. The political agenda has been dominated by two sets of issues. The first is the challenge to the orthodox morality of the Catholic Church, especially on the contentious issues of abortion and divorce. Successive governments have consigned both matters to referendum, occasioning bitter national debates. Abortion remains illegal for the time being, but divorce was finally legalized after a referendum in November 1995 delivered a vote in favor.
Equally contentious is the other main issue: the future of Northern Ireland. Dublin was largely excluded from any official role until the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985 which allowed Dublin consultative status over the future political development of the north. From this starting point, the Irish government has made a continuous and vital contribution, much of it behind the scenes, to the peace process in the province. Dublin’s agreement to drop its formal territorial claim over Northern Ireland, previously enshrined in two articles of the Irish Constitution, was critical in reassuring Northern Unionists who wish to retain the province’s links with Great Britain. Some in Dublin believe that the lowering of barriers between countries, which is a key objective of European Union, will eventually bring about conditions where there is little difference between North and South (ironically, the republic is now more prosperous than the North).Yet many in the North remain deeply suspicious of Dublin’s role, and are disinclined to accept anything which may bring North and South closer together.
Ireland is generally a keen member of the European Union, from which it has derived huge economic benefits. However, in the fast-developing areas of defense and security policy, there is a growing problem of a clash with Ireland’s long-held and cherished neutrality.
Since 1949, Ireland has been a republic with a bicameral legislature: the lower house, the Dáil, has 166 members and is directly elected by universal adult suffrage every five years; the 60-strong Senate has 49 directly elected members with the balance made up of political appointees. Executive power is vested in the Taioseach (Prime Minister) who presides over a Cabinet of Ministers. The cabinet is responsible to the Dáil for its actions.
Ireland’s recent economic history is characterized by what is now the cliché of the ‘Celtic Tiger’. Fuelled by EU membership and effective investment promotion policies, the Irish economy has been transformed over a period of two decades from a European backwater into the fastest-growing economy in the EU.
Hitherto Ireland had not been industrialized to the same degree as the rest of Europe, and only recently has agriculture been overtaken as the largest single contributor to the national product. It remains a key sector, and the Government is seeking to consolidate its role within the economy by modernization and expansion of food-processing industries. Beef and dairy dominate the sector, but there is also large-scale production of potatoes, barley and wheat. Ireland’s recent industrial development has been achieved by a deliberate policy of promoting export-led and advanced technology businesses, partly by offering attractive packages for foreign investors. Textiles, chemicals and electronics have performed particularly strongly. Most of Ireland’s economic development in the 1990s, however, was in the service sector. Banking and finance have grown to the extent that Dublin now supports a sizeable international financial center, while tourism has become a substantial foreign exchange earner.
The statistics of Ireland’s remarkable development are average GDP growth between 7 and 10 per cent since the mid-1990s, while inflation and unemployment were kept consistently below 5 per cent. However, there has been a slowdown of late with GDP growth in 2004 being 1.4 per cent. The Irish are famously enthusiastic about Europe and there is little of the skepticism so prevalent in Britain. Ireland joined EMU with the majority of EU members in the first wave at the beginning of 1999, despite some concern about the consequences of Britain’s non-membership. Trade with the UK, which provides 30 per cent of total imports and takes 20 per cent of Ireland’s exports, remains important but the proportion is declining gradually as other EU countries assume greater significance.