Ireland is a country located in the region of Northern Europe.The economic crisis of 2008 hit hard on Ireland, which for several years was forced into major savings, not least in the welfare systems. Even after the economy has started to grow again, many ordinary Irish people with the consequences of the crisis and distrust of politicians are still alive. This was an important reason for the strong upswing for Sinn Fein in the February 2020 elections, when the left party became largely equal to the bourgeois parties Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil who dominated politics for many years. Only at the end of June did a new government coalition come into being, between the two arch rivals Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil as well as the Green Party.
The 2016 election meant that the bourgeois Fine Gael could remain in power, but with the support of the arch rival, the equally bourgeois Fianna Fáil, and about ten independent members of parliament. There were forces that had wanted to have a formal coalition government between the two major parties, but their members were siding.
- Countryaah: Country facts and history of Ireland, including state flag, location map, demographics, GDP data, currency code, and business statistics.
Prime Minister Enda Kenny, who had led Ireland since 2011, faced increasing criticism in early 2017 for how he had handled a scandal within the police (see Calendar). He resigned formally as leader of Fine Gael in May of that year, and later as head of government. He was replaced by Leo Varadkar, who had previously been Minister of Social Security. When taking office as party leader, Varadkar said it showed how far Ireland had come when he, as the son of an immigrant (his father was born in India) and openly gay, could be elected the country’s leader.
There have been several signs that the Catholic Church has lost its previously so strong grip on politics and society. In 2016, a majority of Irish voted for the introduction of same-sex marriage. Three years later, about two-thirds of voters voted to abolish the so-called Eighth Constitutional Supplement, which meant that a fetus has the same right to life as the pregnant woman (see Social Conditions). Just as in the referendum on same-sex marriage in 2016, the large gap between city and countryside in terms of values seemed to be about to be erased. Support for the constitutional change was greatest in Dublin, but all electoral districts except one (Donegal) voted in favor of the constitutional change.
New legislation permitting abortion until the twelfth week of pregnancy was adopted at the end of 2018 (see Calendar).
Brexit and the border with Northern Ireland
Otherwise, it was a major issue that dominated politics namely Brexit. Already after the UK referendum on EU membership in 2016, concerns were raised that it would have major consequences for Ireland, not least for the Irish economy. But it was only when the negotiations started in 2017 that it became very clear that the question of what would happen to the Northern Ireland-Ireland border, the only land border between the UK and an EU country, would become one of the most difficult during the lengthy negotiations. The situation was further complicated after the British re-election in June 2017, when the Conservative Party lost its majority in the House of Commons and became dependent on support from the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party (DUP),United Kingdom: Current Policy).
During the protracted Brexit process, Varadkar and Fine Gael were able to sit fairly safely in power, as neither party would think to overthrow the government at a critical stage in the negotiations.
There was broadly consensus between the Irish parties on the Brexit issue, while there was great concern that Britain would leave the EU without an agreement. Fine Gael early demanded a written guarantee from the UK Government that it would not be a “hard” border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Both the Government Party and Fianna Fáil and Labor were positive about the attempts to find a special solution for Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein, who works on both sides of the border, criticized the government for having done too little to prepare the Irish economy for a Brexit. In addition, in 2019, the Irish government received criticism from several other EU countries for failing to make sufficiently detailed plans for, for example, the control of border trade should be undertaken in the event of a contractless Brexit.
When the United Kingdom finally left the EU on January 31, 2020, the EU and the British government had agreed on a withdrawal agreement, which means that the province, while entering the UK’s customs territory, will apply some of the EU customs rules. Exactly what this will look like is not yet clear and in early 2020 new negotiations would start on what the future relations between the EU and the UK would look like. The UK Government has set a tight timeframe for the negotiations, which must be concluded by the end of 2020/2021, and there is still a risk that the parties will not be able to agree on an agreement, which is causing concern in Dublin.
The economy and the cuts
The aftermath of the deep economic crisis still affects Irish politics. It is affecting both Fianna Fáil, who was in power when the crisis broke out, and Fine Gael, who made major savings, not least in the welfare system (see Social conditions), to balance the economy and meet the conditions that lenders, the so-called Troika (IMF, EU and European Central Bank), pledged for their crisis loans (see Economic overview and Modern history).
The Irish economy started to grow again from 2013 and two years later, economic growth took off seriously, by 26 percent, according to the Irish Statistics Authority. The huge increase was due to the fact that a number of US companies had moved to Ireland (see Financial overview). Initially, however, few new jobs were created, but as the economy has grown, employment has increased and unemployment had fallen below 5 percent by the end of 2019.
The Irish economy has benefited from the fact that the country has been allowed to have low corporate taxes, but the Dublin government has also been criticized, including by the EU, for the fact that multinational companies have been able to establish themselves in Ireland to avoid paying taxes (see Economic overview). A dispute has arisen about IT giant Apple, which the European Commission has demanded to pay € 13 billion to Ireland in the absence of tax. According to the Commission, the large tax relief that the US company had received in Ireland could be regarded as State subsidies which distort international competition. In 2016, the Irish government chose to appeal against the EU Commission’s decision, much for fear it would otherwise discourage other foreign companies from investing in the country. In 2018, Apple paid cash, including EUR 1 billion in interest, into a special account, where the money should be placed before the European Court of Justice, the case has been settled.
The high government debt was still a burden. In 2018, it amounted to EUR 200 billion, which corresponds to EUR 42,000 per person, which, according to the Irish Times Irish Times, was the third highest figure in the world after the US and Japan. According to the media company RTÉ, in 2016 Ireland paid almost seven billion euros a year in interest rates, but that figure is expected to fall to 4.5 billion euros in 2020. The reduction is largely due to Ireland being favored by the low international interest rates.
However, central government debt makes Ireland extra vulnerable to the coming recession and possible negative effects of Brexit.
Care queues, high housing prices and homelessness
Despite high growth figures, the Ministry of Varadkar had several major domestic policy problems to deal with, such as long care queues, lack of childcare at reasonable prices, lack of housing and growing homelessness.
It was also these issues that came to dominate the campaign before the parliamentary elections on February 8, 2020. Brexit was hardly mentioned at all during the electoral movement. After nine years with Fine Gael in power, it looked as if voters wanted a change of power. Initially, though, it seemed like it was going to be a pretty dead race between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. As the electoral movement progressed, the ruling party seemed to be losing support, while Sinn Féin emerged strongly and ended up alongside Fianna Fáil, who struggled to present herself as a party for change despite supporting Varadkar’s ministry throughout the last term of office.
One issue run by Sinn Féin was a reduction of retirement age to 65 years. As it is now, the retirement age is gradually being increased to 68 years (in 2020 it was 66 years, but from 2021 67 years will apply), but many companies still want employees to retire at 65, which forces those who do not have private pension insurance to live on unemployment benefits until they can retire.
The election turned out to be a scare, as Sinn Féin got the most firsthand votes, but it was not expected to be the biggest party, as it only put up with 42 candidates across the country, which was about half as many as Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil (see also Calendar). In the end Fianna Fáil received 38 seats, one more than Sinn Féin, while Fine Gael ended 35 seats. The Green Party and the Social Democrats also went ahead, and 19 independent members also joined the Chamber of Deputies, which may become the tongue of the scales in an upcoming government formation. It is also unclear whether Sinn Fein’s electoral success was primarily a support for the party’s policy or a dissatisfaction mark against Ireland’s two major bourgeois parties.
It was unclear whether Sinn Féin could use its strengthened position to gain real political influence. Before the election, both Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil ruled out a collaboration with the party. Fianna Fáil’s party leader Micheál Martin pointed out that Sinn Féin’s more radical tax policy would strike against business. Fine Gael also accused the left-wing nationalist party of wanting to pursue a daring economic policy. At the same time, Sinn Fein set clear conditions for possible participation in a coalition government: that it would immediately start planning for a referendum on a united Ireland, which is the political foundation of the party (Sinn Fein is referred to as a nationalist, which in this context represents it who want a united Ireland).
Immediately after the election, Fianna Fáil seemed to leave a small opening for a collaboration with Sinn Féin, but later that week the party rejected all thoughts on this.
Attempts to get a new government were then curbed by the corona crisis, but Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil began talks in March to possibly form a coalition government. They agreed on a framework for such cooperation. In May 2020, formal discussions on this, together with the Green Party, began and at the end of June a new government was formed. Fianna Fáil’s leader Micheál Martin became new prime minister, but after half the term, Leo Varadkar would take over again.
Follow the ongoing development of the Calendar.
READING TIP: read more about Ireland in UI’s publication Foreign magazine:
Brexit again raises the idea of a united Ireland (2019-02-20)
FACTS – POLITICS
Ireland / Éire
republic, unitary state
Head of State
President Michael D Higgins (2011–)
Head of government
taoiseach Micheál Martin (2020–) 1
Most important parties with mandates in the last election
Fianna Fáil 38, Sinn Féin 37, Fine Gael 35, Green Party 12, Labor Party 6, Social Democrats 6, Solidarity – People before Profit 5, Unit 1, Independent Members 19 (2020)
Main parties with mandates in the second most recent elections
Fine Gael 50, Fianna Fáil 44, Sinn Fein 23, Labor Party 7, AAA-PBP 6, Independent Alliance 6, Social Democrats 3, Green Party 2, Independent Members 17 (2016)
just under 63% in the 2020 parliamentary elections, just under 44% in the 2018 presidential election
presidential elections 2025, parliamentary elections 2024
- Martin will be in the post until December 2022, when Leo Varadkar will take over