Ireland History


Ireland is a sovereign, independent, democratic state with a parliamentary system of government. The president, 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 Oireachtas (parliament).

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

The bicameral Oireachtas consists of the Seanad Eireann (senate) and the Dail Eireann (house of representatives). The Seanad is composed of 60 members--11 nominated by the prime minister, six 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 Dail, which wields greater power in parliament. The Dail has 166 members popularly elected to a maximum 5-year term 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.

From 1800 to 1921, Ireland was part of the United Kingdom. The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 established the Irish Free State which, after World War II, left the British Commonwealth and became a republic. Six northern counties on the island of Ireland--Northern Ireland--remain part of the United Kingdom.

Irish politics remain dominated by the two political parties that grew out of Ireland's bitter 1922-23 civil war. Fianna Fail was formed by those who opposed the 1921 treaty that partitioned the island. Although treaty opponents lost the civil war, Fianna Fail 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 conservative 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 a 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 Fail. 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.

In 1997, however, there was a return to a more traditional model. In the June general election, Labour lost heavily and was reduced to 18 seats in the Dail. Though Fianna Fail did not win an outright majority, it increased its seats to 76 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 Fail candidate Mary McAleese, a lawyer from Northern Ireland, won a record victory over four other candidates.
source: State Department Background Notes 1997

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