Ireland News & Current Events
Ireland's First Woman President Heralds Social Change
Under the First Programme for Economic Expansion (1958–1963), economic protection was dismantled and foreign investment encouraged. This prosperity brought profound social and cultural changes to what had been one of the poorest and least technologically advanced countries in Europe. Ireland joined the European Economic Community (now the EU) in 1973. In the 1990 presidential election, Mary Robinson was elected the republic's first woman president. The election of a candidate with socialist and feminist sympathies was regarded as a watershed in Irish political life, reflecting the changes taking place in Irish society. Irish voters approved the Maastricht Treaty, which paved the way for the establishment of the EU, by a large majority in a referendum held in 1992. In 1993, the Irish and British governments signed a joint peace initiative (the Downing Street Declaration), which affirmed Northern Ireland's right to self-determination. A referendum on allowing divorce under certain conditions—hitherto constitutionally forbidden—was narrowly passed in Nov. 1995.
Northern Ireland Commits to Peace with Good Friday Agreement
In 1998, hope for a solution to the troubles in Northern Ireland seemed palpable. A landmark settlement, the Good Friday Agreement of April 10, 1998, called for Protestants to share political power with the minority Catholics and gave the Republic of Ireland a voice in the affairs of Northern Ireland. The resounding commitment to the settlement was demonstrated in a dual referendum on May 22: the North approved the accord by a vote of 71% to 29%, and in the Irish Republic 94% favored it. After numerous stops and starts, the new government in Northern Ireland was formed on Dec. 2, 2000, but it was suspended several times primarily because of Sinn Fein's reluctance to disarm its military wing, the IRA. In 2005, however, the IRA renounced armed struggle, and peace again seemed possible.
Shortly after parliamentary elections in March 2007, Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, and Rev. Ian Paisley, the head of the Democratic Unionist Party, met face to face for the first time and hashed out an agreement for a power-sharing government. The historic deal was put into place in May, when Paisley and McGuinness were sworn in as leader and deputy leader, respectively, of the Northern Ireland executive government, thus ending direct rule from London.
Ireland Becomes Economic Powerhouse
Despite a number of recent corruption and bribery scandals, most of which involved the centrist Fianna Fáil Party of Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, the party won 81 of 166 seats in May 2002. Ahern became the first Irish prime minister in 33 years to be elected to a second successive term.
Once a country plagued with high unemployment, high inflation, slow growth, and a large public debt, Ireland has undergone an extraordinary economic transformation in the last 15 years. Formerly an agriculture-based economy, the “Celtic Tiger” has become a leader in high-tech industries. In recent years its economy has grown as much as 10%, and its population for decades diminished by emigration has seen a boom sparked by immigration and fewer people feeling the need to leave the island for better opportunities.
On April 2, 2008, in the midst of corruption accusations, Prime Minister Bertie Ahern announced his resignation. He was succeeded by former finance minister Brian Cowen.
On June 13, 2008, Ireland, the only country in the 27-member EU that put the Lisbon Treaty to a popular vote, rejected the new treaty, jeopardizing the future of the pact that would have strengthened the EU’s influence in global politics. Ireland changed course in October 2009, approving the treaty.
Global Financial Crisis Hits Ireland
Ireland slipped into recession in the global financial crisis of 2008. Unemployment hit 11% in February 2009, the highest rate in 13 years. The financial situation continued to deteriorate in 2009, and the government responded by implementing unpopular spending cuts and tax increases. By the end of 2009, Ireland's economy contracted by 10%. The economic malaise was largely due to a housing bubble that burst, which in turn saddled banks with bad loans, causing the financial sector to nearly collapse under the weight of the bad debt. Indeed, the Celtic Tiger suffered endured a stunning reversal of fortune.
In November 2010, Ireland sought and received a $113 billion (85 billion euro) bailout package from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund to shore up its banks. The rescue took its toll on Prime Minister Cowen, who rejected demands to call for new elections, opting instead to set them for 2011 after a new budget is passed.
On January 22, 2011, Prime Minister Cowen resigned as leader of his party, Fianna Fáil. The next day, the Green Party withdrew from the government coalition, leaving Cowen as the head of a minority government. Finance Minister Brian Lenihan met with delegations from the Fine Gael, Labour, and the Green parties to accelerate passage of a new budget, allowing for general elections earlier than planned. Cowen announced that he was retiring from politics. The general elections were held on February 25 and voters threw out the Fianna Fáil-led government. On March 9, Enda Kenny, of the Fine Gael party, was sworn in as the new prime minister. Kenny promised to secure a better deal from the European Union on Ireland's bail-out.
Michael D. Higgins, a leftist politician and poet, was elected president in October. A veteran politician, Higgins has represented the Labour Party in both houses of Parliament and served as minister of the arts.
Historic Vote Legalizes Same-Sex Marriage
On May 22, 2015, Ireland became the first country to legalize same-sex marriage in a national referendum. Turnout for the vote was 60.5%. Of those who voted, 62.1% chose in favor of changing the country's constitution to allow same-sex marriage.
The vote came 22 years after Ireland decriminalized homosexuality. The referendum's result showed how quickly the historically conservative country has changed. Of the outcome, Prime Minister Enda Kenny said, "With today's vote we have disclosed who we are: a generous, compassionate, bold and joyful people."