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World > Europe > Ireland > Government and Political Conditions (Notes)

Ireland - Government and Political Conditions (Notes)


GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL CONDITIONS
Ireland is a sovereign, independent, democratic state with a parliamentary system of government. The president, who serves as head of state in a largely ceremonial role, is elected for a 7-year term and can be re-elected only once. The current president is Mary McAleese, who is serving her second term after having succeeded President Mary Robinson - the first instance worldwide where one woman has followed another as an elected head of state. 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 prime minister (Taoiseach, pronounced 'TEE-shuck') is elected by the Dail (lower house of Parliament) as the leader of the political party, or coalition of parties, which wins the most seats in the national elections, held approximately every 5 years (unless called earlier). Executive power is vested in a cabinet whose ministers are nominated by the Taoiseach and approved by the Dail.

The bicameral Oireachtas (Parliament) 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, 6 elected by the national universities, and 43 elected from panels of candidates established on a vocational basis. The Seanad 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 term of 5 years under a complex system of proportional representation. A member of the Dail is known as a Teachta Dala, or TD.

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. County councils/corporations in turn select city mayors. 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 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. The Progressive Democrats, Labour, Sinn Fein, and the Greens are the other significant parties. In the 2002 general elections, 'Independent' TDs began to emerge as a political force, with 14 'Independent' TDs elected to the Dail.

The May 2002 national elections returned Fianna Fail and its coalition partner, the Progressive Democrats, to power, a coalition that had governed since the 1997 elections. Prime Minister Ahern was re-elected Taoiseach and Mary Harney was reappointed as Deputy Prime Minister (Tanaiste, pronounced 'TAW-nish-tuh').

Local and European elections took place in June 2004 and saw gains for opposition parties. The election also featured a referendum on citizenship. Until that time, Ireland had granted citizenship on the basis of birth on Irish soil. Concerns about security and social welfare abuse prompted the government to seek to bring citizenship laws in line with the more restrictive policies prevalent in the rest of Europe, and the 2004 referendum measure passed by a wide majority. Now, persons with non-Irish parents can acquire Irish citizenship at birth only if at least one parent has been resident in Ireland for three years preceding the birth.

Ireland is preparing for the next national elections, which must be held by June 2007. Taoiseach Bertie Ahern plans to lead the Fianna Fail party's campaign, in pursuit of his third consecutive term as prime minister. The Progressive Democrats will be led by Michael McDowell, the current Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, who succeeded Mary Harney in 2006 as party leader and Tanaiste following her resignation from both posts.

Northern Ireland
Consolidating the peace process in Northern Ireland and encouraging the full implementation of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and the 2006 St. Andrews Agreement remain U.S. priorities in Ireland.

The conflict in Northern Ireland stems from a history of British rule, historical animosity between Catholics and Protestants, and the various armed and political attempts to unite Northern Ireland with the rest of the island. 'Nationalist' and 'Republican' groups seek a united Ireland, while 'Unionists' and 'Loyalists' want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. After decades of violence by both Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries, most notably the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the British and Irish governments negotiated an IRA ceasefire in 1994, which was followed by the landmark U.S.-brokered Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in 1998.

The GFA established a power-sharing legislative assembly to serve as the autonomous local government of Northern Ireland. The 108-member Northern Ireland Assembly is led by a first minister and deputy first minister, one from each of the two communities, and a 10-minister executive. The GFA also provided for changes in both the British and Irish constitutions. Ireland ceded territorial claim to Northern Ireland, and the U.K. agreed that Northern Ireland could become part of Ireland if a majority (North and South) so voted in the future. Finally, the GFA provided the blueprint for 'normalization,' to include the eventual removal of British forces, devolution of police and justice functions, and guarantees of human rights and equal opportunity for all individuals. The agreement was approved in a 1998 referendum by 71% of Northern Ireland voters and 95% of Irish voters.

The major political parties in Northern Ireland are the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Sinn Fein, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), and the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP). The UUP and SDLP are centrist Unionist and Nationalist parties, respectively, while Sinn Fein is strongly Republican and the DUP is strongly Unionist. From the time the Assembly was created in 1998 until 2003, the UUP and SDLP were the governing parties.

In October 2002, the British Government suspended (for the fourth time) the Assembly, following a breakdown in trust between Unionists and Republicans. The British and Irish Governments began discussions with the parties to try to resolve longstanding unresolved differences between the communities, and to secure a commitment from Sinn Fein that Republicans would divest themselves of all paramilitary activities and capabilities.

Efforts to restore the political process in time to stage new elections to the Assembly in May 2003 broke down when the two governments concluded they did not have sufficient assurances from the Republicans. However, the governments proceeded to publish a joint declaration, mapping out the timetable to full implementation of the GFA. The governments also created an International Monitoring Commission to serve as a forum to hear complaints of alleged breaches of GFA commitments by the political parties and/or by British authorities. The four-member commission includes a representative from the United States. It issued its first report in April 2004, in which it criticized Republican and Loyalist paramilitary groups for illegal activities.

The British and Irish Governments attempted in October 2003 to conclude a deal with the parties to restore government, but failed to reach agreement. Elections to the suspended Assembly still went forward the following month, turning the more moderate UUP and SDLP out of power and installing the strongly Unionist DUP and strongly Republican Sinn Fein. In late 2004, the British and Irish Governments again attempted, but failed, to negotiate an agreement with the parties on devolution. The weeks following the breakdown in talks saw an armed robbery of Belfast's Northern Bank and a highly publicized murder within the Republican community, with strong allegations of IRA involvement in both cases.

Since 2005, there have been significant steps to reinvigorate the peace process. In July 2005, the IRA unilaterally announced that it would end its 'armed struggle' and rely upon solely peaceful and democratic means to achieve its political objectives. The Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) confirmed in September 2005 that the IRA had effectively put its weapons 'beyond use.' A series of reports by the International Monitoring Commission also noted significant progress by the IRA in its move away from criminality. Following upon this momentum, the British and Irish Governments in April 2006 launched a new negotiation process that envisioned the restoration of the Assembly and the selection of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister by year's end. This process led to a summit at St. Andrews, Scotland, in October 2006, which yielded an agreement by the parties to restore devolved government by the spring of 2007 following Assembly elections in the North (and a form of electoral endorsement to be chosen in the South). The St. Andrews Agreement specifically called for Republican endorsement of policing and the criminal justice system as well as Unionist commitment to political power-sharing.

The political parties and the British, Irish, and U.S. Governments are working on mechanics for implementing the St. Andrews Agreement. Current efforts center on resolving differences between the DUP and Sinn Fein on policing issues and power-sharing. As part of these efforts, the U.S. Embassy in Dublin coordinates regularly with the U.S. Embassy in London, the U.S. Consulate in Belfast, and the office of the President's Special Envoy for Northern Ireland.

The United States also continues to provide funding ($18.4 million in 2005) for projects administered under the International Fund for Ireland (IFI), created in 1986 to generate economic opportunity and cross-community engagement in the border areas, both North and South. Since the IFI's establishment, the U.S. Government has contributed $471 million, roughly half of total IFI funding.

Principal Government Officials
President--Mary McAleese
Taoiseach (Prime Minister)--Bertie Ahern
Tanaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform--Michael McDowell
Ambassador to the United States--Noel Fahey

The Irish Embassy in the United States is at 2234 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202-462-3939/40/41/42). Irish Consulates are located in New York, Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco.


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