history of Ireland is a troubled and often tragic one. The most
enduring features of it are an unswerving commitment to Catholicism
on the part of the majority of the population, the origins of which
can be go back to the pioneering monastic orders of the fifth and
sixth centuries. Secondly, there is the uncertainty and instability
governing Anglo-Irish relations: Ireland was never so fully conquered
that it absorbed or adopted the culture and way of life of its larger
Following the monastic age there was a long struggle against the
Viking invaders who sought to use Ireland as a
base for trade with continental Europe. The Vikings built fortified
ports, thereby laying the foundations of some of the major cities,
including Dublin, Limerick and Waterford.
It was the war between the Irish chieftains and the Vikings that
led to the involvement of the English. Richard of Clare, Earl
of Pembroke (nicknamed Strongbow), was
asked by one the chieftains to support his claims, but instead Strongbow
practically conquered the entire country with only a tiny force
of archers and mounted knights in 1169-70. A stream of Norman families
moved to Ireland, effectively colonising the country and coming
into conflict with the Irish tribal system. Largely unsuccessful
efforts from the 14th century onwards were made to bring the island
under control. The increasingly polarised and turbulent political
life of Ireland took a new and bitter twist after the English
Civil War, when the Irish favoured the deposed monarchy
The triumphant Oliver Cromwell led an army across
the Irish Sea and the rebellion was ruthlessly put down. Over the
next several years, all Catholic land was expropriated and given
to a new wave of Protestant immigrants. The subsequent
Act of Union, passed in 1801, incorporated the
Ireland, along with England, Scotland and Wales, into the United
Kingdom. However, the inadequate response of the Government to the
potato famine of 1845-1846, which decimated the
Irish population through death and emigration, demonstrated its
lack of interest in the welfare of the Irish people.
Various independence movements followed an almost continuous struggle
against the Government until Home Rule was granted in 1920
(the Easter Rising of 1916, centred on the Main
Post Office in Dublin, was a principal landmark).
The terms of independence stipulated that Ireland be split
into two parts. In the northern provinces,
where most Protestants had settled three centuries
earlier, there was fierce opposition to the prospect of being ruled
by a government coming from the country’s Catholic
Six of the nine counties of the province of Ulster therefore remained
in the United Kingdom. The other 26 counties became
known as the Irish Free State. The ensuing civil
war in the south gave rise to the country’s two main political
parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine
In 1937, the Irish Free State gained full sovereignty
within the Commonwealth, a new constitution having been adopted,
and remaining links with Britain were dissolved.
In 1949, the 26 counties became a republic and
formal ties with the Commonwealth came to an end.
In 1973, at the same time as the UK and Denmark, Ireland became
a member of the EEC. European membership proved
to be a huge economic benefit to Ireland. Since the 1970s, the country
has been governed alternately by Fianna Fáil,
a coalition of Fine Gael and the
Ireland’s impressive economic growth in the last 20 years
has been accompanied by a new element of graft in Irish politics.
Charles Haughey (‘The Boss’),
who was Taioseach (Prime Minister) on several occasions during the
1980s and early 1990s, was typical of this trend.
At the 1997 election for the Dáil (lower
chamber of Parliament), no single party secured an overall majority.
Fianna Fáil leader Bertie Ahern
formed a new government in alliance with the support of the smaller
Progressive Democrats (a split from Fianna Fáil) and several
independents. Ahern’s new administration took office at the
end of June with Mary Harney of
the PD as Deputy Prime Minister (Tanaiste). She was the first woman
ever to hold the position.
Ahern’s relatively successful career ensured that the electorate
returned his Fianna Fáil-led coalition with an increased
majority at the most recent poll in May 2002.
Under Ahern’s government, Ireland has continued its impressive
economic growth. The political agenda has been dominated
by two main issues. The first is the challenge to the orthodox morality
of the Catholic Church, especially on the issues
of abortion and divorce. Successive governments have consigned both
matters to referendum, occasioning bitter national debates. Abortion
remains illegal, but divorce was finally legalised after a referendum
in November 1995 delivered a vote in favour.
Equally contentious is the other issue: the future of Northern
Ireland. Dublin was excluded from any official role until
the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985, which allowed Dublin consultative
status over the future political development of the north. The Irish
government has made a continuous and vital contribution, much of
it behind the scenes, to the peace process in the province.
Dublin’s agreement to give up its formal territorial claim
over Northern Ireland, previously enshrined in two articles of the
Irish Constitution, was critical in reassuring
Northern Unionists who want to retain the province’s links
with Great Britain. Some in Dublin think that the lowering of barriers
between countries, which is a key objective of European Union, will
eventually bring about conditions where there is little difference
between North and South.Yet many in the North remain suspicious
of Dublin’s role, and are not keen to accept anything which
may bring North and South closer together.
Ireland is generally a member of the European Union,
from which it has derived huge economic benefits. However, in the
fast-developing areas of defence and security policy, there is a
problem of a clash with Ireland’s long-held and cherished