Government and Politics of Ireland

Fado, fado, the Celts ruled Ireland as a multitude of kingdoms, with one overall, high king. When the Anglo-Normans came to Ireland, they ruled the area within their own kingdoms, building castles throughout the land. During British colonization, the Irish had little control over their land. As the colonizer, the United Kingdom ruled the land from their capital city in London.


During colonization, Catholics suffered extreme discrimination. The British took lands from the Irish and redistributed them in large landholdings among Protestants who were loyal to London. By 1703, Catholics owned only 14 percent of the land in what is today Ireland. In today's Northern Ireland, Catholics owned only 5 percent of the land. The land ownership pattern in the north resulted from plantation landlords and Protestants brought in from England and Scotland to occupy the area.

The British had a different set of laws for Catholics and for Protestants. Laws that applied to Catholics were called penal laws. Among other restrictions, the penal laws prevented Irish Catholics from voting, from serving in the military, from serving as members of parliament, from carrying weapons, from buying land, and from running Catholic schools. In 1829, the British passed the Roman Catholic Relief Act that repealed the penal laws.

Between Britain's penal laws and their efforts to stop the Catholic Church from operating in Ireland, Irish Catholics suffered greatly during the colonial period. By the late 1800s, many Irish Catholics became anxious for independence and started to make movements for freedom from British rule.

However, not all Irish wanted independence.Most of the Protestants, especially in the large Protestant settlement in the north of Ireland, wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom. The majority of people with close ties to the United Kingdom were descendants of British colonial migrants. Those loyal to the United Kingdom became known as Unionists, and they were mainly Protestants.


In the late 1800s, a group of Irish Catholics began to demand home rule. Their first goal was to create an Irish Parliament that would have control over domestic issues for the entire island. Members of the Home Rule party became known as the Irish Nationalists. Politically, there were three major interests in Ireland: the Unionists, the Nationalists, and a third group emerging about this time, the Irish Republicans. The Irish Republicans wanted a free Ireland. They wanted the entire island to gain its independence and exist as one country ruled by Irish.

At the end of the 1800s,William Gladstone, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, decided to support the Nationalist position and attempted to restore an Irish Parliament on the island. Unionists resisted Gladstone's attempts. The Republicans continued to demand freedom for the entire island and, in 1905, Arthur Griffith formed a new Irish Republican political party that he named Sinn Fein.

In 1912, the Parliament in Britain introduced another bill for Irish Home Rule. Unionists fought the bill even more than the earlier versions.As a compromise, Britain proposed that the Home Rule bill exclude six of the counties in Ireland's northern Ulster province. In 1913, a group of Protestants in the north formed the Ulster Volunteer Force with a goal of maintaining a separate, Protestant Ulster.

Both the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish Nationalists began to obtain arms. London's attention turned from Ireland to the rest of Europe in 1914 when World War I began. During the war, both Unionists and the Nationalists fought for Great Britain.

At the same time, Nationalists and Republicans began planning a revolt against the United Kingdom. The uprising occurred on Easter Sunday 1916 when 1,500 rebels occupied key buildings in Dublin. They seized the Post Office, raised the Irish flag, and declared Ireland independent. The British attacked the rebels and killed almost one-third of them. The British then executed 97 of the rebels including Patrick Pearse.

Because of the uprising, more Catholics in Ireland began to support Sinn Fein, Eamonn de Valera's political party that supported Irish independence. In the 1918 election, Sinn Fein won 73 of the island's seats in the British Parliament. Instead of going to parliament in London, the members of Sinn Fein convened their own parliament in Ireland in 1919.

They named their new legislative body the Dail Eireann (Irish Parliament). The Dail Eireann drafted and signed an Irish declaration of independence. The Dail proclaimed, “We solemnly declare foreign government in Ireland to be an invasion of our national right which we will never tolerate, and we demand the evacuation of our country by the English Garrison.”

In 1919, the Irish Republican Army, led by Michael Collins, fought a war for independence. In 1920, the British passed the Government of Ireland Act partitioning the island into north and south. The six counties of the north, a Protestant stronghold, formed their own parliament, and the 26 counties of the south had their own parliament. Under this act, both the north and the south remained part of the United Kingdom.

The province of Ulster in the north includes nine counties, but only six of the nine became Northern Ireland. Protestants in the north recognized that because of the distribution of Catholic and Protestant residence, they could have a stronger majority in their parliament if they only included six of the counties.

Despite clear opposition from the Catholic Church, the Irish Republican Army carried on a guerrilla war. Black (police) and Tan (army) British troops, so named because of the color of their uniforms, fought back mercilessly, also killing civilians.

On Sunday, November 21, 1920, the Irish Republican Army killed 14 British spies. The Black and Tan responded by firing into a crowd of civilians at a football match in Dublin's Croke Park. Twelve people died and this event became known as Bloody Sunday. The Irish Republican Army responded by killing more British soldiers.

Sinn Fein continued to boycott the British Parliament and kept meeting as the Dail Eireann. The Irish Republican Army continued the guerrilla war and the British continued to respond, but finally, both sides began to talk to each other.


In 1921 Michael Collins signed a truce between the Irish Republican Army and the British. The Anglo-Irish Treaty created the Irish Free State. As a free state, Ireland would remain within the British Commonwealth, but would no longer be part of the United Kingdom. The British government became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Some Republicans and Nationalists saw Collins as a traitor to a unified Ireland. History seems to show him as a realist.

In 1922, Eamon de Valera became president of the Irish government. The new government was split between those loyal to Collins and those loyal to de Valera. De Valera and his loyalists walked out of the government. Events led to the Irish Civil War in 1922 and 1923. During that war, Michael Collins was killed in County Cork.

The public demanded an end to the war, but political conflicts continued in the Irish Free State. The political conflicts made it difficult for the government to accomplish anything. In 1927, de Valera and his followers formed Fianna Fail, a new political party that quickly received a lot of support. By 1932, this new party controlled the Dail, with de Valera serving as Taoiseach (Prime Minister). The new government enacted several reforms and a new constitution.


In 1937, Ireland established its constitution. Today, Ireland still struggles with a desire to peacefully reunite Ireland and Northern Ireland into one country. In their constitution, the people of Ireland dealt with the political split of the island by extending Irish citizenship to all people born on the island of Ireland, including the six counties of Northern Ireland. The Irish constitution also expresses a desire to reunite the north and south and to do so peacefully.

In 1949, Taoiseach John Costello declared Ireland to be the Republic of Ireland, a fully independent country. The British finally recognized its status and also gave Northern Ireland the right to decide its future. It remained in the United Kingdom.


In their constitution, the Irish set up a parliamentary government. The Irish government is divided into three separate powers: the legislative, executive power, and judicial. In Ireland's parliamentary system, the president plays a different role than in the United States. In the United States, the president is part of the executive branch. In Ireland, the president is part of the legislative power, and only a small part. In Ireland, the main duties of the president are to appoint the Taoiseach, to dissolve the Dail and call for new elections, to command the defense forces, and to sign bills into law. The president serves a seven-year term and may serve two terms.

The focus of the legislative power is the Oireachtas (National Parliament). The Oireachtas is composed of a Dail Eireann (House of Representatives) and the Seanad Eireann (Senate). The president can dissolve the Dail and call for new elections. When the president calls for a new election of the Dail, an election must be held within 25 days. This short time span between the call for an election and the election makes the campaign for Ireland's Dail quite different from the lengthy political campaigns in the United States.

The government divided the 26 counties of Ireland into 41 constituencies for representation in the Dail. Each constituency has at least three representatives in the Dail. Some constituencies have many more because they have higher populations. The Dail is the body of Oireachtas that represents the people. The people of Ireland directly elect members of the Dail. All bills in the Oireachtas that involve allocating money must originate in the Dail.

The Seanad is composed of 60 members. Ireland designed the Seanad to represent the country's different interests. The Taoiseach nominates 11 members of the Seanad. Graduates of Irish universities elect six other members of the Seanad. The remaining 43 are elected from five panels of candidates. The Seanad's main functions are to consider legislation, make amendments, and pass or reject each bill sent on from the Dail.

In the executive power, the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) is the head of Ireland's government. Members of the Dail nominate the Taoiseach, and the president officially appoints the Taoiseach. The Taoiseach represents Ireland in its relations with other countries. Domestically, the Taoiseach coordinates Ireland's 15 departments of state and chairs meetings of the cabinet. As a member of the executive branch, the Taoiseach oversees the execution of the laws the Oireachtas passes.

In the judicial power of the Irish government, there is a supreme court, a high court, and several other courts. All are responsible for interpreting and applying the laws the legislative power creates. The Supreme Court has the added responsibility of interpreting the intent of the constitution in certain cases.

Ireland's government, like that of the United States, is divided into three powers. In three other ways, however, it is quite different than U.S. political practices. In Ireland, the people elect officials through proportional representation. Political parties have to form coalitions in order for the government to function. The Irish people also vote for members of parliament in the European Union.

In Ireland's proportional representation system, several candidates run for each seat or group of seats. When the Irish vote, each person ranks the candidates first, second, third, and so on. When a vote is counted, if the voter's number one candidate already has enough votes to win, that voter's vote will go to the candidate he or she ranked number two. A proportional representation system has two primary goals. First, it ensures that minority parties are represented in the government. Second, it makes sure that voters' preferences are recognized; so, those votes are not wasted.

There are several political parties in Ireland that have a lot of supporters. After general elections to the Dail, it is rare for a single political party to hold the majority of the seats in the Oireachtas. Typically, the party that wins the most seats will form a coalition with another party that has similar stances on major issues. These two (or sometimes more) political parties will work together as a coalition government and try to pass legislation. Once the coalition parties find that they cannot work together, the Taoiseach will typically advise the president to dissolve the Dail and call for new elections.


All countries that are members of the European Union send representatives to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. European Parliament elections are held every five years. The European Parliament has different political parties than Ireland. Some parties hold views similar to those of the Irish; others have concerns that are unique to the European Union. Membership in the European Parliament is allocated to each country in the European Union according to population. Ireland currently has 15 of the European Parliament's 626 members. Parliamentary debates are held in 11 official languages, including English, but not the Irish language.


Politics in Ireland today are marked by an undertone of concern for Northern Ireland and a strong desire among the Irish to bring peace to the island. The civil war in Ireland ended in the 1920s. A guerrilla war, however, continued in Northern Ireland between the Irish Republican Army and the Unionists. At that time, Catholics comprised over 30 percent of the population in the north, but did not have equal rights in government and society.

During the 1960s, a civil rights movement began to sweep the globe. At this time, Catholics in Northern Ireland began to lead their own press for civil rights. Unfortunately, violence between Catholics and Protestants continues in the north, with intermittent periods of peace and no complete solution. The politics of Northern Ireland are certain to undergo change in the coming decades because the Catholic population has increased over time to be approximately equal to the Protestant population.