Republic of Ireland

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Ireland, Republic of

Ireland, Republic of, Gaelic, Eire, republic (2015 est. pop. 4,700,000), 27,136 sq mi (70,282 sq km). It occupies all but the northeastern corner of the island of Ireland in the British Isles. (For physical geography and history to 1922, see Ireland.) From 1922 to 1937 the country was known as the Irish Free State, and from 1937 to 1949 as Eire. Dublin is the capital of the republic and by far its largest city.

Political Geography and People

The republic's 26 counties are Monaghan, Cavan, and Donegal (constituting part of the historic province of Ulster); Louth, Meath, Dublin, Kildare, Wicklow, Carlow, Wexford, Kilkenny, Laoighis, Offaly, Westmeath, and Longford (comprising Leinster); Tipperary, Waterford, Cork, Kerry, Limerick, and Clare (comprising Munster); and Leitrim, Roscommon, Galway, Mayo, and Sligo (comprising Connacht). In addition to the capital, other urban areas are Limerick, Cork, Dún Laoghaire, Waterford, Galway, and Dundalk.

The population is largely Celtic with a minority of English and more recent European and non-European immigrants drawn (since the 1990s) by the country's economic growth. The population is largely Roman Catholic (88%). Although there is no officially established church, the Roman Catholic church has historically played a dominant role in education in the Irish Republic and, until the 21st cent., was extremely influential societally. English and Gaelic are the official languages, with English the more widely used. Gaelic is most common in the west of the country.


Agriculture, once the most important sector of the economy, now engages only 8% of the workforce. The raising of dairy and beef cattle, sheep, pigs, and poultry is the chief agricultural enterprise. Among the leading crops are flax, oats, wheat, turnips, barley, potatoes, and sugar beets. The republic's industries account for more than 45% of its gross domestic product and 80% of its exports, and employ roughly 30% of its workforce. Products include steel, foodstuffs, beer and ale, textiles, clothing, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, machinery, transportation equipment, vehicles, ships, computer and telecommunications hardware, computer software, linen and laces (for which Ireland is famous), crystal, and handicrafts. The main ports are Dublin and Cork. Around the free port of Shannon are factories producing electronic equipment, chemicals, plastics, and textiles. Copper, lead, zinc, silver, barite, and gypsum are mined, and oil and natural gas are produced offshore. Tourism is also very important. Ireland's main exports are machinery, computers, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, live animals, and animal products. Imports include data processing and other equipment, chemicals, petroleum products, textiles, and clothing. The main trading partners are Great Britain, the United States, and Germany.


The republic is governed under the constitution of 1937. The president, who is the head of state, is popularly elected to a seven-year term and is eligible for a second term. The prime minister, who is the head of government, is appointed by the president, as is the cabinet. There is a bicameral Parliament, the Oireachtas. The House of Representatives or Dáil Éireann is the more powerful chamber. Its 166 members are elected by popular vote on the basis of proportional representation. Members of the 60-seat Senate or Śeanad Éireann are indirectly elected or appointed. All legislators serve five-year terms. Administratively, the country is divided into 26 counties.


After the establishment by treaty with Great Britain of the Irish Free State (Jan., 1922), civil war broke out between supporters of the treaty and opponents, who refused to accept the partition of Ireland and the retention of any ties with Britain. The antitreaty forces, embodied in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and led by Eamon De Valera, were defeated, although the IRA continued as a secret terrorist organization. William Cosgrave became the first prime minister. De Valera and his followers, the Fianna Fáil party, agreed to take the oath of allegiance to the British crown and entered the Dáil in 1927.

In 1932, De Valera became prime minister, and under his administration a new constitution was promulgated (1937), establishing the sovereign nation of Ireland, or Eire, within the Commonwealth of Nations. De Valera's policies aimed at the political and economic independence and union of all of Ireland. The loyalty oath to the crown was abolished, and certain economic provisions of the 1921 treaty with England were repudiated, leading to an “economic war” (1932–38) with Britain.

During World War II, Eire remained neutral and vigorously protested Allied military activity in Northern Ireland. The British were denied the use of Irish ports, and German and Japanese agents were allowed to operate in the country. Some 60,000 Irish citizens, however, volunteered to serve with the British armed forces, including some 7,000 who deserted from the Irish army. The people of Eire suffered relatively little hardship during the war and even profited from increased food exports. The postwar period brought a sharp rise in the cost of living and a decline in population, due in great part to steady emigration to Northern Ireland, Great Britain, and other countries. In 1948, Prime Minister J. A. Costello demanded total independence from Great Britain and reunification with the six counties of Northern Ireland.

The Republic of Ireland was proclaimed on Apr. 18, 1949. The country withdrew from the Commonwealth and formally claimed jurisdiction over the Ulster counties. It was admitted to the United Nations in 1955. Nothing came of the claim to Ulster, and during the 1950s and 60s the republic and Northern Ireland improved their economic relations. The later decade also saw an all-time low in Irish population, 2.82 million in 1961. In the late 1960s the problem of Northern Ireland flared up again in bitter fighting between the Protestant majority and Catholic minority there, aggravated by the actions of the IRA, which was headquartered in the republic.

In 1973, Erskine H. Childers succeeded De Valera as president of Ireland, and Liam Cosgrave, at the head of a Fine Gael–Labor coalition, replaced Jack Lynch, of Fianna Fáil, as prime minister. In the same year the republic joined the European Community (now the European Union). Childers died in 1974 and was succeeded by Cearbhal O. Dalaigh. Lynch led Fianna Fáil back into office in 1977; in 1979 fellow party member Charles Haughey replaced Lynch as prime minister. In 1981 a Fine Gael–Labor coalition headed by Garret FitzGerald defeated Fianna Fáil on an economic platform. Although ousted in 1982, the coalition was governing again six months later. Beginning in the late 1970s the republic's political situation was more fluid than it had been; there were several general elections and a variety of party schisms. In 1987, Haughey again became prime minister. As unemployment soared, especially among young people, outmigration increased, reaching a peak of 44,000 in 1989.

During the 1990s, the economy grew significantly, buoyed by EU subsidies and new foreign investment. By the end of the decade, unemployment was below the EU average, although pockets of poverty persisted. In late 1994, after the IRA and Protestant militias agreed to a cease-fire, efforts were begun to negotiate a settlement of the the Northern Ireland issue. Despite some setbacks, agreements were reached in Apr., 1998, and approved by voters in both the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland in May. Women's issues, such as the government's strong antiabortion stance and the constitutional ban on divorce, also became a focus in the 1990s; a referendum legalizing divorce passed by a narrow margin in 1995. In 1991, Ireland elected its first female president, Mary Robinson, and in 1997 Mary McAleese became its first president from Northern Ireland.

In 1992, Albert Reynolds, of Fianna Fáil, replaced Charles Haughey as prime minister, and when the governing coalition collapsed, Reynolds successfully formed another. The Reynolds government fell in 1994, and Fine Gael leader John Bruton succeeded him, heading a Fine Gael–Labor coalition. Bertie Ahern became prime minister in 1997, heading a Fianna Fáil–Progressive Democrat coalition; his coalition was returned to office in 2002. Revelations in 2006 that Ahern had received loans from business acquaintances in 1993–94 while he was finance minister and had not yet repaid them sparked controversy. Ahern said his attempts to repay them had been refused; he did repay the loans soon after they were became public.

In 2007 Ahern led his party to another victory at the polls, but Progressive Democrat losses led to the addition of the Green party to the governing coalition. Investigation into Ahern's finances revealed he had received additional secret cash payments in the early 1990s, and in May, 2008, he resigned because the investigation was undermining his government. Deputy Prime Minister Brian Cowen succeeded Ahern as Fianna Fáil leader and prime minister.

In June, 2008, Irish voters rejected the European Union's Lisbon Treaty amid concerns over the loss of Irish sovereignty. The Irish, who voted in a referendum because of conflicts between the treaty and the Irish constitution, were the only national electorate given a chance to vote on the treaty. A second vote on the Lisbon Treaty in Sept., 2009, following EU guarantees designed to allay Irish concerns, resulted in the treaty's approval.

Ireland officially entered what became a prolonged recession in Sept., 2008, ending more than a decade of growth that had earned its economy the nickname “Celtic Tiger.” By the end of 2008, the collapse of Ireland's booming property market threatened the Irish banking system, especially the Anglo Irish Bank, which was nationalized in early 2009 (its reprivatization did not begin until 2017). In Sept., 2010, the total cost of Ireland's bailout of its banking system was estimated to be ultimately €40 billion, with roughly three fourths of that incurred due to the Anglo Irish Bank.

In November the markets had forced Ireland to agree to an €85 billion international rescue package, and the country was forced to adopt additional austerity measures and radically overhaul its banks. The Green party remained in the governing coalition but called for an early election, and Cowen, who resigned as party leader (Jan., 2011), was forced to call for an early election when the Greens quit the government. In the February contest, Fine Gael and Labor placed first and second, with the former almost winning a majority. The two parties formed a coalition government in March, with Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny as prime minister. A government proposal to abolish the Senate was rejected in a referendum in Oct., 2013. The country has experienced slow growth since 2011, but unemployment, which went above 10% for the first time in a decade in 2009, peaked at 15% in 2012. Unemployment has since declined to below 9%, and the country emerged from financial rescue program and its restrictions at the end of 2013. In May, 2015, in marked break with the country's conservative Roman Catholic past, 60% of the voters in a referendum approved same-sex marriage.

In the Feb., 2016, elections, Fine Gael and Labor suffered significant seat losses, but Fine Gael narrowly secured a plurality; Fianna Fáil placed second. After inconclusive negotiations to form a new government, Kenny and Fine Gael formed (May) a minority government with some independent support and the acquiescence of Fianna Fáil; in June, 2017, Kenny stepped down and was replaced by his successor as Fine Gael leader, Leo Varadkar, who became Ireland's youngest prime minister (and the first to be gay and partially of Indian descent). Fianna Fáil threatened Varadkar's government with a confidence vote in November over the deputy prime minister's handling of a police whistleblower scandal, and she was forced to resign.

The British government's decision in 2017 to proceed with withdrawing from the European Union made determining how to treat the border with Northern Ireland and the effect of any change on the Irish economy and the Northern Irish sectarian situation a major issue for the Irish Republic. The uncertain situation ultimately led to an extension of the Fine Gael–Fianna Fáil understanding through 2019. Ultimately the North remained aligned with the EU's Single Market, and freedom of travel continued across the border with the Irish Republic. In May, 2018, voters approved, by nearly two thirds, repealing the constitutional ban on abortion that had been adopted in 1983. By a similar margin, a constitutional ban on blasphemy was removed by voters in October, and more than 80% approved liberalizing the constitutional rules concerning divorce in May, 2019.

In the Feb., 2020, elections, Sinn Féin won a plurality of the vote but Fianna Fáil won one more seat; Fine Gael was a close third in number of seats. In June, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and the Green party formed a coalition. Micheál Martin, Fianna Fáil's leader, became prime minister and Varadkar as deputy prime minister, with the two to switch offices halfway through the government's term.


For bibliography, see under Ireland.

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