Irish history at a glance

The Celts and the Catholics on the Irish island came under English rule in the early 17th century. The Irish mostly remained Catholics and thus alienated from the protestant English power. Economic and political life was however dominated by immigrated land owners and in the north Protestants constituted the majority due to immigration from Scotland and England. In the 19th century Ireland was struck by several famines, and during the 1840s the Irish Potato Famine killed over a million people. Mass starvation combined with emigration thus led the Irish population to drop from 8 million before the famine to 4.4 million in 1911.

The issue of Irish self-government led to tensions between Irish nationalists (comprised most of the island’s agrarian and Catholic population) and Irish unionists (mainly a feature of the protestant and industrialized northeast). An attempt was made to gain independence with the 1916 Easter Rising, an insurrection mostly confined to Dublin, but which gained more widespread support after it was brutally put down. A war of independence (1918 to 1921) led to the signing in 1922 of the bilateral Anglo-Irish Treaty which formalized independence of what was later to become the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom. The treaty was to play a decisive role in the political developments ahead.

Sinn Féin (“we ourselves”), who had won an overwhelming victory in the 1918 election, now split into two factions: One in favour and one opposing the 1922 treaty. A bloody civil war followed which the pro-treaty faction won. The party representing the winning faction later became known as Fine Gael (“the Irish family”) and subsequently held governmental power until 1932.  The anti-treaty supporters in 1926 formed the Fianna Fáil party (FF), which won the 1932 elections and held governmental power until 1948.

In 1948, the popular FF leader De Valera was defeated by John A. Costello, who demanded final independence from Britain. The Republic of Ireland was proclaimed on April 18, 1949, and withdrew from the Commonwealth. From the 1960s onwards two antagonistic currents dominated Irish politics. One sought to bind the wounds of the rebellion and civil war. The other was the effort of the outlawed Irish Republican Army and more moderate groups to bring Northern Ireland into the republic. The “troubles”—the violence and terrorist acts between Republicans and Unionists in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland—would plague the island for the remainder of the century and beyond.

Between 1957 and 1973 Fianna Fáil continously governed Ireland. From 1973 to 1987 the Irish party system accomplished a moderate pluralist character as Fine Gail and Labour gained more support and managed to cooperate on a range of issues.   

Ireland entered the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, but an economic downturn in the 1970s caused the Irish economy to stagnate. However, economic reforms in the late 1980s and considerable investment from the EEC led to one of the world’s highest economic growth rates.

Politics in the new era

Ireland is a parliamentary republic. The president, while acting as the head of state, is usually regarded as a ceremonial dignitary. The prime minister serves as the head of government and executive powers are vested in the government comprising the prime minister and his/her cabinet. Legislative powers are exercised by the bicameral Parliament ( Oireachtas), which consists of the Senate ( Seanad Eireann) and the House of Representatives ( Dail Eireann)

The weak significance of the left-right axis in Irish politics makes Irland unusual in the Western European political context. Fianna Fáil (FF) and Fine Gael (FG) do not identify themselves first and foremost as either centre-right or centre-left parties. Rather, both parties arose from the great split that occurred in Irish politics at the time of the Treaty of 1922 and the two parties have dominated Irish politics since then. The country’s profound religious roots are also still a topic of debate and mostly correspond with the unionist/ nationalist dividing line.

After 1932 Fianna Fáil almost monopolized government with a very stabile support among Irish voters. The party received its lowest share of votes in 1993 and 1997 when it received 39 percent of the votes. A coalition was then formed between Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats. The 2002 general elections were again considered a success for FF, with the party coming within a handful of seats from achieving an overall majority. FF and PD thus continued their coalition and FF leader Bertie Ahern, accordingly entered his second term as Taoiseach (prime minister). Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael, on the other hand, experienced a meltdown in support, which saw the main opposition party drop from 54 to 31 seats. The party consequently lost all but three seats in Dublin, and several prominent members. Sinn Féin, closely associated with the Provisional IRA, led by Gerry Adams, increased its position and increased its seat number from one to five.

The 2007 election was one of the more closely fought in decades. While the elections resulted in a continuation of governmental power for Fianna Fáil, it’s coalition partner, the Progressive Democrats, lost six of their eight seats. Negotiations resulted in the formation of a coalition government consisting Fianna Fáil, the Green Party and the Progressive Democrats and the third period in office for Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. Fine Gael improved their representation considerable by gaining a total of 20 seats.


Heidar, K. and Berntzen E. (1998). Vesteuropeisk politikk: Partier, regjeringsmakt, styreform . Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.