Ireland country brief


Ireland, also called the Republic of Ireland, has a population of just over 4.7 million (2016). The country comprises 26 of the 32 counties that constitute the island on which it is located. The remaining six counties in North-East Ulster are part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The Republic of Ireland was founded through the conclusion of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921. The Constitution of 1937 and the Republic of Ireland Act 1948 severed Ireland’s last formal links with the UK. Ireland remained neutral during the Second World War and does not belong to any military alliance. Ireland became a member of the United Nations (UN) in 1955 and joined what is now the European Union (EU) in 1973.

Ireland’s international engagement was given new impetus when it chaired the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in 2012, held the rotating EU Presidency from January to June 2013, and was elected to the UN Human Rights Council (2013-2015). Ireland is seeking a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council for the 2021-22 term.

Political overview

System of Government

Ireland is a republic, with a system of parliamentary democracy. The National Parliament (Oireachtas) consists of the President and two houses: the Dáil Éireann (the House of Representatives) and the Seanad Éireann (the Senate).

The President is directly elected for a seven-year term. Michael D Higgins was elected President in October 2011. Presidents can serve a maximum of two terms, consecutive or otherwise. The office of the President is largely ceremonial.

The two Houses of the Oireachtas, the Dáil and the Seanad, make laws. A general election to elect members to the Dáil must take place within five years of the previous election (the next one must take place no later than 12 April 2021). There are 158 members in the Dáil who are elected directly via a system of proportional representation. The Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and the other members of the Government are appointed by the President: the Taoiseach on the nomination of the Dáil and the other members of the Government on the nomination of the Taoiseach with the prior approval of the Dáil. The Government has the power to appoint Ministers of State (junior ministers) directly. The Deputy Prime Minister is known as the Tánaiste.

The Seanad has limited powers and largely functions as a review body for the Dáil. It can delay, but not block, legislation. The Seanad has 60 members, none of whom is directly elected. Eleven are directly appointed by the Taoiseach, six are elected by graduates of certain Irish universities, and 43 are elected from five panels of nominees, known as vocational panels consisting of members of the Dáil, senators and local councillors.

Recent political developments

The last Irish general election, held on 26 February 2016, initially proved inconclusive with no party able to form government. However, on 6 May 2016 the centre-right Fine Gael party and a group of independents managed to form a minority government after agreeing a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement with the Fianna Fáil party. Following this, Mr Enda Kenny was re-elected Taoiseach.

On 17 May 2017, Mr Kenny resigned as leader of Fine Gael, and in a subsequent internal election, was replaced by Mr Leo Varadkar. Mr Varadkar was sworn-in as Taoiseach on 14 June 2017.

Major parties

Ireland’s two main political parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, do not divide on a right/left basis on political, economic or social issues. Both are centre-right and have their roots in differing community attitudes to the 1921 Treaty of Independence (from the UK). Fine Gael represents the tradition that accepted the treaty as a stepping stone to an eventual republic of the whole island. Fianna Fáil represents the tradition that rejected the treaty because the present six counties of Northern Ireland were excluded from the outset. These traditions are still reflected in slightly different approaches towards Northern Ireland but there is bipartisan support for the peace process and the 1998 Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.

EU/European issues

Active participation in EU policy-making is a priority for the Irish Government. Ireland joined the European Community in 1973 and seeks to coordinate its foreign policy with other EU Member States. Ireland held the rotating EU presidency for the period January-July 2013, the seventh time it had done so.

The Irish constitution requires European treaties go to a national referendum and this has resulted in a high level of debate on Ireland’s role in the EU and the future of the EU. In 2008 the Irish electorate rejected the Lisbon Treaty. After receiving specific assurances from the European Commission, the Lisbon Treaty was ratified in a second referendum in 2009.

Northern Ireland Peace Process

In December 1999, the UK Parliament devolved power to the Northern Ireland Assembly and its Executive Committee of Ministers. The Northern Ireland Assembly was established as a result of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement of 10 April 1998. The Agreement was the outcome of a long process of talks between the political parties of Northern Ireland and the British and Irish Governments. The Belfast Agreement significantly reduced terrorist activity and delivered tangible, community-level benefits. Australia retains an interest in the peace and reconciliation process through its role as an observer at meetings of the International Fund for Ireland.

Economic overview

Ireland’s economy, while relatively small, is modern and trade-focused. Industrial activity is focused on pharmaceuticals, chemicals, computer hardware and software, food products, beverages and brewing, and medical devices. Ireland’s low rate of corporation tax has seen many multinational companies relocate to Ireland in recent years, particularly in the IT and pharmaceutical sectors. Ireland’s principal export markets are the United States, the UK and Belgium.

Bilateral relationship

Australia has maintained an embassy in Dublin since 1 September 1946. 2016 therefore marked the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Australia and Ireland have a number of bilateral agreements covering areas such as taxation, social security, extradition, medical treatment for travellers and working holidays for young people. Australia and Ireland signed a bilateral social security agreement in 2005 to give improved social security protection to people who have lived and/or worked in both Australia and Ireland.

People-to-people links

The Irish were among the first European settlers in Australia and contributed substantially to the development of contemporary Australian society. Irish migration has been almost continuous throughout the period of European settlement of Australia. In the 2016 Census, nearly 2.4 million Australians indicated they had some Irish ancestry.

Some tens of thousands of Irish people may be visiting Australia at any one time, including through working holiday visa arrangements. In the year ending March 2017, more than 56,000 Irish nationals visited Australia.

Although Ireland is not a major source country for international students, both governments are supportive of the development of bilateral research and development and academic links. The Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences (IRCHSS) has developed a relationship with its counterpart in Australia, the Academy for the Humanities. University College Dublin hosts the Keith Cameron Chair of Australian History, which was established in 1985.

High-level visits

Recent high-level visits and meetings include:

  • Senator the Hon Mathias Cormann, Minister for Finance, visited Ireland in June 2017 as leader of the European Australia Business Council business mission.
  • Mr Patrick O’Donovan TD, then Minister of State for Tourism and Sport, visited Australia in March 2017 for St Patrick’s Day celebrations and to promote trade, investment and tourism.
  • Also in March 2017, Mr David Stanton TD, Minister of State for Justice and Equality, visited Australia.
  • The Hon Julie Bishop MP, Minister for Foreign Affairs, visited Ireland in February 2017 for meetings with ministerial counterparts and to advance the government’s economic diplomacy and innovation agendas.
  • Ms Helen McEntee TD, then Minister of State for Mental Health and Older People, visited Australia in February 2017 to attend the International Initiative for Mental Health Leadership Exchange in Sydney.

Bilateral economic and trade relationship

The Australia-Ireland economic relationship is modest but growing. In 2016, total two-way trade with Ireland was valued at $4.4 billion. Total merchandise exports to Ireland were valued at $103 million and total merchandise imports at $2.7 billion. Australia’s principal exports were medicaments and wine. Ireland’s major exports were medicaments (including veterinary), manufactured articles and pharmaceuticals.

Australia’s services exports to Ireland in 2016 were valued at $511 million and services imports from Ireland at $1.1 billion. Professional, technical and other business services, and recreational travel, remain significant components of Australian services exports to Ireland.

In 2016, Ireland’s total investment in Australia was valued at $26.1 billion, while Australia’s investment in Ireland was valued at $12.9 billion. Irish investment in Australia includes: aerospace, agribusiness, business services, and pharmaceuticals. Australian investors in Ireland are focused on: business, financial and mining services, ICT, and manufacturing.

Last Updated: 4 August 2017