|The Irish people are mainly of Celtic origin, with the country's only significant sized minority having descended from the Anglo-Normans. English is the common language, but Irish (Gaelic) is also an official language and is taught in schools.
Anglo-Irish writers such as Swift, Sheridan, Goldsmith, Burke, Wilde, Joyce, Yeats, Shaw, and Beckett have made a major contribution to world literature over the past 300 years.
The earliest inhabitants--people of a mid-Stone Age culture--arrived about 6000 BC. About 4,000 years later, tribes from southern Europe arrived and established a high Neolithic culture, leaving behind gold ornaments and huge stone monuments. The Bronze Age people, who arrived during the next 1,000 years, produced elaborate gold and bronze ornaments and weapons.
The Iron Age arrived abruptly in the fourth century BC with the invasion of the Celts, a tall, energetic people who had spread across Europe and Great Britain in the preceding centuries. The Celts, or Gaels, and their more numerous predecessors divided into five kingdoms in which, despite constant strife, a rich culture flourished.
The coming of Christianity from across the Irish Sea brought major changes and civilizing influences. Tradition maintains that St. Patrick arrived on the island in AD 432 and, in the years that followed, worked to convert the Irish to Christianity.
The pagan druid tradition collapsed before the spread of the new faith, and Irish scholars excelled in the study of Latin learning and Christian theology in the monasteries that flourished. Missionaries went forth from Ireland to England and the continent, spreading news of the flowering of learning, and scholars from other nations came to Irish monasteries. The excellence and isolation of these monasteries helped preserve Latin and Greek learning during the Dark Ages. The arts of manuscript illumination, metalworking, and sculpture flourished and produced such treasures as the Book of Kells, ornate jewelry, and the many carved stone crosses that dot the island.
Two hundred years of Viking invasion and settlement was later followed by a Norman conquest in the 12th century. The Norman conquest resulted in the assimilation of the Norman settlers into Irish society. The early 17th century saw the arrival of Scottish and English Protestants, sent as colonists to the north of Ireland and the Pale around Dublin.
In 1800 the Irish Parliament passed the Act of Union with Great Britain, and Ireland was an official part of the United Kingdom until 1921. Religious freedom, outlawed in the 18th century, was restored in 1829, but this victory for the Irish Catholic majority was overshadowed by a severe economic depression and the great famine from 1846-48 when the potato crop failed. Millions died, and the millions that emigrated spawned the first mass wave of Irish emigration to the United States. A decade later, in 1858, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB--also known as the Fenians) was founded as a secret society dedicated to armed rebellion against the British. An aboveground political counterpart, the Home Rule Movement, was created in 1874, advocating constitutional change for independence.
Galvanized by the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell, the party was able to force British governments after 1885 to introduce several home rule bills. The turn of the century witnessed a surge of interest in Irish nationalism, including the founding of Sinn Fein ("Ourselves Alone") as an open political movement.
Nationalism was and is a potent populist force in Irish politics. A home rule bill passed in 1914, but its implementation was suspended until war in Europe ended. Believing the mantra: “England’s problem is Ireland’s opportunity,” and tapping into a mood of Gaelic revivalism, Padraic Pearse and James Connolly led the unsuccessful Easter Rising of 1916. Pearse and the other 1916 leaders declared an independent Irish republic, but a lack of popular support doomed the rebellion, which lasted a week and destroyed large portions of Dublin. The decision by the British military government to execute the leaders of the rebellion, coupled with the British Government's threat of conscripting the Irish to fight in the Great War, alienated public opinion and produced massive support for Sinn Fein in the 1918 general election. Under the leadership of Eamon de Valera, the elected Sinn Fein deputies constituted themselves as the first Dail. Tensions only increased: British attempts to smash Sinn Fein ignited the Anglo-Irish War of 1919-1921.
The end of the war brought the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921, which established the Irish Free State of 26 counties within the British Commonwealth and recognized the partition of the island into Ireland and Northern Ireland, though supposedly as a temporary measure. The six predominantly Protestant counties of northeast Ulster--Northern Ireland--remained a part of the United Kingdom with limited self-government. A significant Irish minority repudiated the treaty settlement because of the continuance of subordinate ties to the British monarch and the partition of the island. This opposition led to further hostilities--a civil war (1922-23), which was won by the pro-treaty forces.
In 1932, Eamon de Valera, the political leader of the forces initially opposed to the treaty, became Prime Minister, and a new Irish constitution was enacted in 1937. The last British military bases were soon withdrawn, and the ports were returned to Irish control. Ireland was neutral in World War II. The government formally declared Ireland a republic in 1948; however, it does not normally use the term "Republic of Ireland," which tacitly acknowledges the partition, but refers to the country simply as "Ireland."
GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL CONDITIONS
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 prime minister 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. 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. Prime Minister Ahern was re-elected Taoiseach and Mary Harney was reappointed as Tanaiste (Deputy Prime Minister).
Local and European elections were held in June 2004, along with a referendum on citizenship. Ireland currently grants citizenship through birth on Irish soil, making Irish citizenship laws among the most liberal in the European Union (EU). Concerns about security and social welfare abuse prompted the government to seek to bring citizenship laws into line with the more restrictive policies prevalent in the rest of Europe, and the measure passed by a wide majority.
Consolidating the peace process in Northern Ireland and encouraging the full implementation of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA) 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 unionist 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 provides 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 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 republican 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 again in October 2003 to conclude a deal with the parties to restore government, but failed to reach agreement. However, elections to the suspended Assembly went forward in November 2003; these elections turned the more moderate UUP and SDLP out of power and installed the strongly unionist DUP and strongly republican Sinn Fein. The Assembly remains suspended, as the DUP refuses to enter into dialogue or government with Sinn Fein until the IRA ends all paramilitary activities and decommissions its weapons. The British and Irish Governments are engaged in ongoing efforts with the parties to restore the political process and restore devolved government.
The United States supports the efforts of the British and Irish Governments to restore the democratic process in Northern Ireland and to fully implement the GFA. The U.S. remains engaged in dialogue with all parties, in coordination with our Embassies in Dublin and London, our Consulate in Belfast, and the office of the President’s Special Envoy for Northern Ireland.
The United States also continues to provide funding ($25 million in 2003) for projects administered under the International Fund for Ireland, created in 1986 to generate economic opportunity and cross-community engagement in the border areas, both north and south.