EU country briefing: Ireland

[Photo: Robert Steenland]

The following article is a part of a series of brief country profiles for the EU-28 ahead of the European elections in May.

Following an emphatic referendum result which saw 81.3% voting in favour of membership, Ireland joined the EU (then the EEC) in 1973, together with the United Kingdom and Denmark. In recent years, Ireland has found itself at the centre of Brexit negotiations, following the UK’s decision to leave the EU in June 2016.

Like the UK, Ireland has a Schengen opt-out. The reasons are pragmatic, based on maintaining a frictionless border with Northern Ireland, which remains part of the UK, and the Common Travel Area with the UK, which pre-dates membership of the EU. Ireland was an original member of the eurozone, from the turn of the millennium.

Brexit, if and when it happens, is likely to affect Ireland more than any other of the remaining 27-member states, due not only to the significant economic and demographic links between the two countries but also because Ireland is the only country sharing a land border with the UK.

With 4.8 million inhabitants, Ireland is one of the smaller member states in terms of population, representing slightly over 1% of the EU population after Brexit. 13 (1.8%) out of the 705 Members of the European Parliament (MEP) will be elected in Ireland.

Ireland’s economic and social transformation since joining the EU is particularly noteworthy, as it turned from a peripheral young country largely reliant on UK markets into a thriving modern European economy.

Typically seen as a conservative, predominantly Roman Catholic country, Ireland has undergone a significant shift in social attitudes, as demonstrated by recent referendum results approving gay marriage and abortion, two issues that were completely outside of the political mainstream until very recently.

Irish people are the second most enthusiastic about EU membership (after Luxembourg), as 85%  believe the EU is a good thing rather than a bad thing (10%), above the EU average (62/11).

Moreover, 75% are satisfied with the way democracy works in the EU (by far the highest, with Denmark second on 68% and an EU average of 50%). This is in stark contrast to its Eurosceptic neighbour (UK) at the other end of the spectrum.


Ireland’s economy has grown rapidly since the end of the recent economic recession, defying doubts as to the sustainability of its growth rates, registering a baffling 25% GDP growth for 2015.

Economic growth (in annual real GDP) has been more consistent since the crisis, even becoming the fastest in the EU, growing by 6.8% in 2018 and an expected 4% in 2019. Its total GDP stood at €294.1 billion in 2017, around 2.3% of total EU27 (without the UK).

It is nevertheless important to note that such growth has been fueled almost exclusively by activities of multinationals in investment and exports.

Irish GDP has not only grown at a fast pace, but the country maintains the second highest GDP per capita of the EU: €56,400 in 2017 and double the EU28 average (€27,700).

Despite these impressive growth figures, wages have barely increased and household savings remain low (less than 10%), which may point to an unstable future for the Irish economy despite nominal successes. Accordingly, median income figures are less impressive than the nominal ‘average’, which gets skewed by a relative handful of high earners.

Following a bailout package from the EU, IMF and ECB in 2010, Ireland was the first country to leave its bailout programme in 2013, and by 2018, unemployment had fallen to 5.8%, almost back at the 5% level registered in 2007 (from a peak of 15.5% in 2012).

Yet, the current growth trends resemble the ‘Celtic Tiger’ model witnessed before the economic crisis, with Ireland’s economic outlook subject to considerable uncertainty depending on changes in trade environment and in international taxation, an area where Ireland’s lax approach has raised concerns at the EU level.

Moreover, economic growth has also been slowing recently due to the uncertainty around Brexit.

Political context and direction

Ireland is a unitary parliamentary republic, established in 1948 after the Republic of Ireland Act ended the remaining role of the UK in the 1937 constitution.

The Prime Minister (Taoiseach) leads the government in Dáil Éireann, the lower House of Parliament, elected using proportional representation (Single Transferable Vote system). Together with the upper house, the Seanad or Senate (with a complex, largely indirect method of election) this forms the Oireachtas or Houses of Parliament.

Since June 2017, Leo Varadkar from the liberal-conservative Fine Gael (FG) has been the Taoiseach, Ireland’s youngest leader to date. The president is recognised as the head of state but performs a largely ceremonial and representative function. Michael D. Higgins was re-elected president for a second seven-year term in November 2018.

Key events in the Irish struggle for independence from the United Kingdom included the Easter Rising of 1916 and the war of independence from 1919-21, during which the island was partitioned, and Northern Ireland was created as a result of a Unionist majority in six northern counties who sought to remain part of the UK.

Ireland’s political landscape has been historically dominated by Varadkar’s conservative Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil (FF).

Both FG and FF are closely aligned on the political spectrum. However, historical complexities dating back to the Anglo-Irish Treaty that gave birth to the Irish Free State, the Irish Civil War of 1922 that followed, and the process of building the state, have turned these parties into political opponents.

The pro-Treaty side emerged victorious in the civil war and governed the Irish Free State, which remained a dominion of the British Commonwealth, until 1932. This party later became Fine Gael in 1933.

Fianna Fáil, on the other hand, was created in 1926 by anti-Treaty leaders (who wished for nothing less than full independence from the UK) following defeat in the war and it later won power in the elections of 1932.

Since then, these two political parties have alternated power, either alone or more recently in coalitions, generally with the social-democratic Labour Party (S&D).

The third major player in Irish politics is the left-wing nationalist Sinn Féin (SF), best known in recent decades as representing the nationalist and republican community in Northern Ireland, however now also with considerable support in Ireland.

Sinn Féin remains the second largest party in the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly in Belfast, close behind the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which is providing support to the current Conservative UK government in Westminster. However, there has not been a functioning Northern Ireland Executive since February 2017.

Currently, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar leads a minority government in the 158-seat Dáil, with 49 Fine Gael seats and 7 supportive independent votes, together with a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement reached with Fianna Fáil with its 44 seats. The opposition includes Sinn Féin with 21 seats and several smaller parties.

Brexit has had a significant impact on political dynamics in Ireland, with a cross-party consensus on key issues that have contributed to continued support for the minority government. All parties in the Dáil are agreed on the need for protecting the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and the peace process in Northern Ireland.

A ‘No Deal’ Brexit and subsequent UK exit from the Customs Union and Single Market has stoked fears of a return to a ‘hard border’ between Ireland and Northern Ireland, with border infrastructure including customs posts evoking memories of recent decades of ‘Troubles’, when these physical barriers were targeted by paramilitary groups.

The open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland has played a big symbolic role in bringing the two communities together following decades of division and conflict.

The Irish border question has been at the forefront of Brexit negotiations since late 2017, leading to the ‘Irish backstop’ – an insurance policy to avoid a return to a hard border.

Initially proposed for Northern Ireland specifically, this was extended upon the UK’s request to include the whole of UK. It guarantees, in short, that until other solutions are agreed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland, the UK will remain aligned to the Customs Union with the rest of the EU.

The Irish backstop has been cited as one of the main sticking points of the negotiated Withdrawal Agreement for British MPs. However, all remaining 27 EU members have held firm in their support for Ireland on this issue and will not accept its removal from the Agreement unless viable alternative arrangements are proposed.

Predictions for EP elections 2019

Fine Gael, the ruling party, is expected to get most of the votes (30%) and send four MEPs to the European Parliament for the European People’s Party (EPP), keeping the same number.

Behind them, Fianna Fáil shows signs of recovery with 24% of the votes and three seats, up from one seat in 2014, which will go to the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE).

Close behind with 20% of the votes is Sinn Féin, expected to secure three MEP seats (no change) for the European United Left–Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL).

Moreover, the Labour Party (S&D) are expected to obtain a single seat (none before) with 6% of the votes, which will go to the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) respectively.

Also, a coalition of independent candidates stands in third place with 13%, which should translate in two MEP seats for other European groupings.

The number of MEPs was reduced from 12 to 11 in the 2014 election. In 2019, the number of seats is expected to increase to 13 following agreed redistribution of UK seats post-Brexit, however, it remains to be seen how this will be affected by ongoing Brexit developments in the coming weeks.

Pablo Ribera Payá is a PhD candidate in European Studies at Masaryk University and works in EU policy analysis and communication. He holds a double degree master in European Governance.

Robert Steenland works as an evaluation and research consultant in EU policies, as well as an analyst in EU politics.  He holds a double degree master in European Governance.

Daniel Matthews-Ferrero is a Marie Curie PhD Researcher in the POLITICO programme at the University of Aberdeen, focusing on contemporary Western European populism. He holds an MA in European Interdisciplinary Studies from the College of Europe.

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