Principal Government Officials
Chief of State: President Michael D. Higgins
Head of Government: Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny
Ireland is a sovereign, independent, democratic state with a parliamentary system of government. The president, who serves as head of state in a ceremonial role, is elected for a 7-year term and can be re-elected only once. Michael Higgins succeeded Mary McAleese as President on November 11, 2011. 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) is elected by the Dail (lower house of parliament) as the leader of the political party, or coalition of parties, that wins the most seats in the national elections, which are 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, six 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 terms 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, most authority remains with the central government.
The June 2004 local and European Parliament elections 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 on Irish soil only if at least one parent has been resident in Ireland for 3 years preceding the birth.
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 and pre-eminent political party, generally dominating government since the 1930s. Fine Gael, representative of the pro-treaty forces, has been Ireland’s perennial second party, holding government only intermittently. Labour, Sinn Fein, and the Greens are the other significant parties.
The May 2007 national elections had brought the Fianna Fail party and its leader Bertie Ahern back to power in a coalition government for an unprecedented third 5-year term. Coalition members joining Fianna Fail were the Green Party and the Progressive Democrats. Ahern appointed Finance Minister Brian Cowen Deputy Prime Minister (Tanaiste, pronounced "TAW-nish-tuh").
The February 2011 general election saw a sharp reversal of fortune for both major parties and brought a considerable change to Ireland’s political landscape. Fianna Fail suffered its worst defeat in the party’s history. By contrast, Fine Gael and Labour both secured their best-ever results in a general election. Fine Gael and Labour entered into a coalition government; Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny became Taoiseach, and Labour leader Eamon Gilmore became Tanaiste and Foreign Minister.
U.S. priorities remain supporting the peace process and devolved political institutions in Northern Ireland and encouraging the implementation of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, also known as the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), and the 2006 St. Andrews Agreement.
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 Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), the British and Irish Governments negotiated a PIRA ceasefire in 1994, which was followed by the landmark U.S.-brokered Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
The GFA established a power-sharing executive and assembly to serve as the devolved local government of Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Assembly has 108 elected members. The power-sharing executive is led by a first minister and deputy first minister, one each from the largest unionist and nationalist parties, and an 11-minister executive. The GFA also provided for both Ireland and the U.K. to accept that Northern Ireland could become part of Ireland if a majority (north and south) so voted in the future. The GFA provided a blueprint for "normalization," to include reduction in the numbers and role of armed forces, devolution of police and justice authorities, 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), the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP), and the Alliance Party. The UUP and SDLP are centrist Unionist and Nationalist parties, respectively, while Sinn Fein is strongly Republican and the DUP is strongly Unionist. The Alliance Party is the only non-sectarian party.
Since June 2008, Northern Ireland's First Minister has been DUP party leader Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister has been Martin McGuinness, who is a Sinn Fein member of the British Parliament and a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The DUP, Sinn Fein, and UUP currently make up the power-sharing executive. The next Northern Ireland Assembly election will be held in 2015.
The International Fund for Ireland (IFI), created in 1986, provides funding for projects to generate cross-community engagement and economic opportunity in Northern Ireland and the southern border counties (Cavan, Donegal, Leitrim, Louth, Monaghan, and Sligo). Since the IFI's establishment, the U.S. Government has contributed over $486 million, roughly half of total IFI funding. The other major donor to IFI is the European Union (EU).
Ireland is a member of numerous international organizations, including the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the European Union. Ireland has been an important contributor to numerous international peacekeeping missions, such as in Lebanon (UNIFIL), Liberia (UNIMIL), the Balkans (KFOR and EUFOR), and Chad (EUFOR). Ireland is also a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. Ireland's overseas development assistance focuses on Sub-Saharan Africa and stands at 0.5% of GDP.
Sources:CIA World Factbook (November 2011)
U.S. Dept. of State Country Background Notes ( November 2011)