A national literature in Irish is reemerging. Anglo-Irish writers, including Swift, Sheridan, Goldsmith, Burke, Wilde, Joyce, Yeats, Shaw, and Beckett, have made a major contribution to world literature over the past 300 years.
What little is known of pre-Christian Ireland comes from a few references in Roman writings, Irish poetry and myth, and archaeology. The earliest inhabitants--people of a mid-Stone Age culture--arrived about 6000 BC, when the climate had become hospitable following the retreat of the polar icecaps. About 4,000 years later, tribes from southern Europe arrived and established a high Neolithic culture, leaving behind gold ornaments and huge stone monuments for archaeologists. This culture apparently prospered, and the island became more densely populated. 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. This pagan society was dominated by druids--priests who served as educators, physicians, poets, diviners, and keepers of the laws and histories.
But the coming of Christianity from across the Irish Sea brought major changes and civilizing influences. Tradition maintains that in 432 AD, St. Patrick arrived on the island and, in the years that followed, worked to convert the Irish to Christianity. Probably a Celt himself, St. Patrick preserved the tribal and social patterns of the Irish, codifying their laws and changing only those that conflicted with Christian practices. He also introduced the Roman alphabet, which enabled Irish monks to preserve parts of the extensive Celtic oral literature.
The pagan druid tradition collapsed in the face of the spread of the new faith, and Irish scholars excelled in the study of Latin learning and Christian theology in the monasteries that shortly flourished. Missionaries from Ireland to England and the continent spread 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 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.
This golden age of culture was interrupted by 200 years of intermittent warfare with waves of Viking raiders who plundered monasteries and towns. The Vikings established Dublin and other seacoast towns but were eventually defeated. Although the Irish were subsequently free from foreign invasion for 150 years, internecine clan warfare continued to drain their energies and resources.
In the 12th century, Pope Adrian IV granted overlordship of the island to Henry II of England, who began an epic struggle between the Irish and the English which not only burned intermittently for 800 years but which continues to affect Irish politics and bilateral relations to this day. The Reformation exacerbated the oppression of the Roman Catholic Irish, and, in the early 17th century, Scottish and English Protestants were sent as colonists to the north of Ireland and the Pale around Dublin.
From 1800 to 1921, Ireland was an integral part of the United Kingdom. Religious freedom was restored in 1829. But this victory for the Irish Catholic majority was overshadowed by severe economic depression and mass famine from 1846-48 when the potato crop failed. The famine 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 above-ground 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. The outbreak of war in Europe in 1914 put home rule efforts on hold, and, in reaction, Padraic Pearse and James Connolly led the unsuccessful Easter Rising of 1916. The decision by the British-imposed court structure to execute the leaders of the rebellion, coupled with the British Government's threat of conscription, 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."
The president appoints as prime minister the leader of the political party, or coalition of parties, which wins the most seats in the Dail (house of representatives). 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 Senate 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.
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.
In recent years, however, there have been signs that this largely two-party structure is evolving. Mary Robinson of the Labour Party shocked the political establishment by winning the 1990 presidential election. Articulating a progressive agenda for Ireland's future and outspoken on social issues, Robinson represented a distinct break from the traditional politics of the two major parties. The November 1992 general election confirmed this trend. The two main parties lost ground as the Labour Party scored an historic breakthrough, winning 19% of the vote and 33 seats in the House. As a result of the election, Labour held the balance of power between the two largest parties and initially chose to go into coalition with Fianna Fail. That government collapsed in November 1994, and Labour again demonstrated its new role when it dictated the terms of a new "rainbow" government coalition with Fine Gael and the Democratic Left.
The year 1997, however, saw a return to a more traditional model. In the June general election, Labour lost heavily and was reduced to 18 seats in the Dail. Though Fianna Fail did not win an outright majority, it increased its seats to 76 (currently 75) and was able to form a coalition with the much smaller (4 seats) Progressive Democrats. Fine Gael also picked up seats but was unable to form a coalition with the much-reduced Labour party. In the November 1997 presidential election, Fianna Fail candidate Mary McAleese, a lawyer from Northern Ireland, won a record victory over four other candidates.
As a result of the 1997 elections, a minority government led by Taoiseach (prime minister) Bertie Ahern of Fianna Fail took office. Mary Harney, who heads the Progressive Democrats Party, serves as the Tanaiste (deputy prime minister) and Minister for Enterprise, Employment, and Trade. The coalition relies on the support of four independent members to give it a governing majority. In 1999, the Labour Party absorbed the smaller party of the Democratic Left, bringing its total number of seats in the Dail to 21 (currently 20).
Since coming to power, the government of Prime Minister Ahern has presided over a strong economy. Ireland boasts the highest growth rate of any country in the OECD over the last 3 years, low unemployment, and a surplus in the country's finances. However, the "Celtic Tiger's" inflation rate has edged up over the past year. To address this concern, Prime Minister Ahern has pledged action to curb inflation and, thereby, sustain sound economic growth. On the diplomatic front, the government has played a key role in brokering a lasting peace in Northern Ireland, in bolstering Ireland's role in the European Union, and in leading Ireland to join NATO's Partnership for Peace in 1999.
Most recently, allegations of political corruption related to property development schemes, tax avoidance by business and political leaders, as well as other scandals dating back to the late 1980s and early 1990s have surfaced. The Dail has established two tribunals--the Flood Tribunal and the Moriarty Tribunal--to investigate these various scandals, and the work of the two tribunals will likely continue until 2001. Although several senior political leaders and members of parliament have been named in connection with the scandals, the government of Prime Minister Ahern remains stable, and most observers think it unlikely new general elections will be held before spring 2001.
Resolving the Northern Ireland problem remains a leading political issue in Ireland and is a major priority in U.S. relations with Ireland. The U.S. Government is engaged with both the Irish and British Governments on ways that the U.S. can play a constructive role in supporting the peace process in the North.
The conflict in Northern Ireland stems from the division between "Nationalist" and Unionist" segments of the Northern Ireland population: Nationalists in Northern Ireland want unification with Ireland, while Unionists want Northern Ireland to continue its union with Great Britain.
Since the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement granting Ireland a formal voice in Northern Ireland affairs, there has been an extensive dialogue between the two governments on how to bring about a peaceful, democratic resolution of the conflict. In December 1993, the "Downing Street Declaration," holding out the promise of inclusive political talks on the future of Northern Ireland, was issued. This led the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to call a "total cessation" of military operations on August 31, 1994. This was followed 6 weeks later by a similar cease-fire by the loyalist paramilitaries.
Following up on the cease-fires, the two governments in February 1995 issued a "frameworks" document, which proposed a basis for negotiations. Generally welcomed by Nationalists, it was rejected by Unionists, who disparaged it as a "blueprint for a united Ireland." Despite the negative Unionist reaction, the two governments tried to launch the negotiating process by announcing that they would hold a series of bilaterals with all the constitutional parties in the north.
The process stalled in 1995 due to disagreements between the British Government and Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, about the decommissioning of IRA weapons. President Clinton's visit to Ireland in December 1995 led to the establishment later the same month of an International Commission, chaired by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, to recommend a solution to this impasse.
The January 1996 "Mitchell Report" recommended decommissioning during a talks process and was widely praised. However, the British Government decision to hold elections for a negotiating body was seen as a step backwards, and in February 1996 the IRA officially ended its cease-fire with a bomb attack in London that killed two. At the end of February the two governments announced that all-party talks would begin in June and be open to all parties disavowing violence. In May 1996 the elections were held, with Sinn Fein doing particularly well. However, the party was turned away from the negotiations, chaired by Sen. Mitchell, when they began on June 10 because of the IRA's continued campaign of violence.
Throughout the latter half of 1996 and early 1997 the negotiations made little progress. The May 1997 election of Tony Blair and the Labour Party Government in the U.K., however, re-energized the process and led to increasing pressure on the IRA/Sinn Fein to restore the cease-fire. After gaining assurances that the negotiations process would be time-limited and that decommissioning would not again become a stumbling block, the IRA did restore its cease-fire in July 1997, and Sinn Fein was admitted to the talks process in September 1997. The negotiations moved from process into substance in October 1997. In a final marathon push in April 1998, which included the personal intervention of President Clinton, all parties, on April 10, signed an agreement. The "Good Friday" (April 10 happened to be Good Friday) Agreement was put to a vote, and strong majorities in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland approved it in simultaneous referendums on May 22, 1998.
The agreement provides for a 108-member Northern Ireland elected assembly to be overseen by a 12-minister executive committee in which Unionists and Nationalists would share responsibility for governing. The agreement, which is now being implemented, also will institutionalize the cross-border cooperation with the Republic of Ireland and will create mechanisms to guarantee the rights of all. Members of the 108-seat assembly were elected on June 25. The results of the election confirm that four parties will play a dominant role in the new legislative body: the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) won 28 seats, and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) won 20 seats on the Unionist side. On the Nationalist side, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) won 24 seats and Sinn Fein, 18. Assembly members met in "shadow" mode while they prepared the procedures and modalities of the new legislative body, which assumed governing responsibilities in 1999. Following the election, the Northern Ireland Executive was created, headed by First Minister David Trimble (UUP), and Deputy Minister Seamus Mallon (SDLP) emerged in December 1999.
The issue of decommissioning has proven to be a stumbling block that, for a time, thwarted effective implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. When the UUP threatened to pull out of the powersharing Executive in February 2000 over what the UUP charged was the IRA's failure to disarm in accordance with the commitments made in the Belfast Agreement, the British Government suspended Northern Ireland's local governing body. In so doing, it sought to prevent both sides from renouncing the 1998 Good Friday Agreement altogether. Nevertheless, a substantial majority of Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland continued to support the peace process throughout the 72-day impasse.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern mediated a series of talks aimed at the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive, as high-level engagement on the part of Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the United States continued. Finally, on May 6, 2000, the IRA pledged to put its arms completely and verifiably "beyond use" in a groundbreaking statement on decommissioning. David Trimble, as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), welcomed the statement and rallied support for his party's return to the Executive. In a divided vote, 459 in favor to 403 against, the UUP decided to resume its involvement. On May 29, 2000, the British Government restored direct rule to Northern Ireland. President Clinton hailed the resumption of Northern Ireland's home rule as an important step toward the "promise of peace."
Although the reestablishment of the Executive has further reinforced popular and political support for the Good Friday Agreement, significant challenges persist. Splinter groups opposed to the peace process have committed terrorist attacks in Northern Ireland and in mainland Britain on several occasions since the Belfast Agreement was signed. The worst of these attacks took place in Omagh, Co. Tyrone in August 1998 when 29 people were killed and hundreds seriously injured. Other divisive issues that have yet to be resolved include carrying out the Patten Commission's recommendations on reform of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (Northern Ireland's police force), as well as the emotive issue of flying British and Irish flags over public buildings on holidays and special occasions.
U.S. Government policy on Northern Ireland condemns all acts of terrorism and violence, perpetrated by any party on either side. It also cautions all Americans to question closely any appeal for financial or other aid from groups involved in the Northern Ireland conflict to ensure that contributions do not end up in the hands of those who support violence, either directly or indirectly.
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.
In 1999, the recent trend of a U.S. trade deficit with Ireland continued. Overall, the value of U.S. imports from Ireland exceeded the value of U.S. exports to Ireland by $3.3 billion. Nonetheless, given the continued favorable outlook for the Irish economy, sales opportunities for U.S. producers in Ireland are expected to improve. Export-Import Bank financing and the presence of major U.S. banks in Ireland facilitate marketing by U.S. suppliers.
President Clinton and Irish Government officials have noted the important contribution toward economic and social progress American industrial investment in Ireland--north and south--has made. President Clinton has pledged to maintain the U.S. commitment to facilitate the growth of such job-creating investment. The International Fund for Ireland, which is funded by the U.S. Congress, has contributed $5 million annually to Ireland to support cross-border initiatives.
U.S. investment has been particularly important to the growth and modernization of Irish industry over the past 25 years, providing new technology, export capabilities, and employment opportunities. The stock of U.S. investment in Ireland at end-1998 was valued at $16.1 billion. Currently, there are more than 580 U.S. subsidiaries, employing almost 86,000 people and spanning activities from manufacturing of high-tech electronics, computer products, medical supplies, and pharmaceuticals to retailing, banking and finance, and other services.
Many U.S. businesses find Ireland an attractive location to manufacture for the EU market, since it is inside the EU customs area. Government policies are generally formulated to facilitate trade and inward direct investment. The availability of an educated, well-trained, English-speaking work force and relatively moderate wage costs have been important factors. Ireland offers good long-term growth prospects for U.S. companies under an innovative financial incentive program, including capital grants and favorable tax treatment, such as a low corporation income tax rate for manufacturing firms and certain financial services firms.
Economic and trade relations are an important element of the bilateral relationship. U.S. investment has been a major factor in the growth of the Irish economy, and Irish membership in the European Union (EU) means that discussion of EU trade and economic policies, as well as other aspects of EU policy, are a key element in exchanges between the two countries.
Emigration, long a vital element in the U.S.-Irish relationship, has declined significantly with Ireland's economic boom in the 1990s. For the first time in its modern history, immigration to Ireland, especially of non-Europeans, is a growing phenomenon with political, economic, and social consequences. However, Irish citizens do continue the common practice of taking temporary residence overseas for work or study, mainly in the U.S., U.K., and elsewhere in Europe, before returning to establish careers in Ireland
The U.S. embassy in Ireland is located at 42 Elgin Road, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4 (tel. 668-7122; fax 668-9946).