Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: English, Irish
Main religions: Roman Catholic 3,729,100 (78.3 per cent), Church of Ireland (Anglican) 126,400, Orthodox 62,200, Other Christian 37,400, Presbyterian 24,200, Apostolic or Pentecostal 13,400, Muslim 63,400, Hindu 14,300 (2016 Census).
Main ethnic groups: White Irish 3,854,200 (82 per cent), Other White 446,700, Other Asian 79,300, Black Irish or Black African 57,900, Irish Travellers 31,000, Chinese 19,400, Other Black 6,800 (2016 Census).
As of 2016, 810,400 Irish residents were born outside Ireland, amounting to 17.3 per cent of the population, with Romanians, Brazilians and Spanish among the fastest growing national groups (2016 Census).
There are 1.76 million people who can speak Irish: 73,800 of these speak it daily, 111,500 weekly, 586,500 less often and 421,300 reported never speaking it (2016 Census).
Updated June 2020
Ireland’s long history of discrimination, as a country colonized for centuries, includes the death of up to a million people in the Great Famine and the emigration of millions of others to Britain, the United States and elsewhere. In recent years, however, Ireland has also seen increasing flows of immigration and a growing diversity among its population. While the impact of the 2008 global financial crisis and the subsequent rollout of austerity measures by the Irish government has impacted heavily on the country, the effects have been felt disproportionately by the Traveller and Roma communities.
Travellers, numbering some 31,000 people, finally secured official recognition as a distinct ethnic group in 2017 – an important milestone for a community that, while stigmatized, has struggled with invisibility in public life. Nevertheless, Travellers continue to suffer acute marginalization in Ireland, reflected in poor educational outcomes, unemployment levels exceeding 80 per cent and life expectancy levels far behind the national average. As of 2018, just 3 per cent of Travellers in Ireland were above the age of 65, compared to 13 per cent of the Irish population as a whole. Travellers also face a mental health crisis that has contributed to suicide rates six times higher than the general population, accounting for 11 per cent of all Traveller deaths. Their situation is perpetuated by discrimination at all levels of society, with a 2017 survey undertaken on behalf of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission finding that Travellers were 10 times more likely to experience discrimination than white Irish members of the population.
A key issue facing Travellers is lack of access to decent accommodation. Despite being less than one per cent of the overall population, they constitute nearly 10 per cent of Dublin’s homeless. Around the country, hundreds of families are camped on roadsides at risk of eviction and with nowhere to go, as officially designated halting sites are overcrowded. Academic researchers report that local authorities with the fastest growing Traveller communities are failing to spend funds earmarked for Traveller housing.
There are now as many as 5,000 Roma in the country, a diverse population with a range of languages, religions and nationalities, most having migrated from Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and Bulgaria at different times. Many are now Irish citizens, resident for generations, yet Roma continue to struggle with multiple barriers that leave them on the margins of Irish society. Anti-Roma sentiment persists, reflected not only in hate speech and abuse but also in reports of police profiling and other instances of official discrimination that have prompted the Irish government to step up its response, including a nation-wide needs assessment of the community published in 2018. This highlighted, among other issues, the deep-seated poverty and exclusion that Roma still face. Employment levels are as low as 20 per cent among Roma men and 8.2 per cent among Roma women, a situation perpetuated by a lack of formal training and employer discrimination. At the same time, due to difficulties in proving eligibility for the Habitual Residence Condition, through which means tested social welfare payments are provided, approximately 40 per cent of Roma families are unable to access welfare.
While the country has become more ethnically and religiously diverse, Ireland remains predominantly white and Roman Catholic. Immigrants, particularly those with other ethnic or religious backgrounds, still contend with social prejudice. In 2018, the Economic and Social Research Institute published a study that looked at attitudes of Irish-born people to immigration. The results found that while 58 per cent of respondents were supportive of immigrants of the same ethnicity as the majority population, this fell to 41 per cent when considering Muslims and 25 per cent for Roma. Their predicament was noted In 2016 during Ireland’s Universal Period Review by the UN’s Human Rights Council, with the government urged to renew its National Action Plan against Racism (2005-2008) and to introduce a more effective mechanism to combat the racism, discrimination and xenophobia experienced by minorities including Muslims, people of African descent and migrants.
Asylum seekers in Ireland are supported through a system known as direct provision, a controversial process that distributes applicants to centres across the country while their cases are considered – a period that can last many years and involve numerous delays. Activists have highlighted the poor living conditions and psychological distress this has created for thousands of asylum seekers, some of whom have been in a limbo awaiting a decision for more than seven years.
Ireland is contending with the consequences of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU. As the Republic of Ireland is the only European country sharing a land border with the United Kingdom, Brexit has acute implications on multiple levels beyond trade. For example, as free movement currently exists across the island of Ireland, the prospect of a hard border between the two has brought up concerns over the threat that this poses to the progress that has been made towards peace and stability amongst communities that exist on both sides of the border as a consequence of the 1998 Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, which brought an end to the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. This also has implications on community ties that transcend the border as well as the movements of Traveller communities that continue to be nomadic. It is hoped that a hard border has been averted under the terms of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal agreement signed with the EU in January 2020, although the full implications of the withdrawal process will only become clear once a comprehensive trade deal has been negotiated.
Updated June 2020
The Republic of Ireland comprises 26 of the 32 counties of the island of Ireland on the fringes of north-western Europe. It is bordered by the six counties of Northern Ireland (part of the United Kingdom) to the north, by the Atlantic Ocean to the west and by the Irish Sea to the east.
England’s conquest and colonization of Ireland began in the twelfth century. In the sixteenth century the Gaelic nobility were made vassals of the English crown, and by 1603 England controlled all of Ireland. Full-scale rebellion broke out in 1641, lasting until Oliver Cromwell brought the English army to Ireland in 1649. Nearly all land that had belonged to Catholic landowners was given to soldiers for arrears of pay and to adventurers who had loaned the government money. A Protestant English upper class was created.
By the mid-eighteenth century Catholics owned only 7 per cent of the land. Following a further rebellion in 1798, Ireland was made part of Great Britain by the Act of Union in 1800. Restrictions of trade and commerce made the country almost entirely dependent on agriculture. In 1845 a potato disease blighted the crop, and this combined with high rents and evictions to result in six years of famine in which an estimated one million people died, and between 1845 and 1855 some 2 million Irish, a quarter of the population, emigrated.
Protestants were among the earliest people who articulated Irish nationalism. Among them was Wolfe Tone, whose organization, the United Irishmen, was the first to call for a united Ireland, and whose membership included many Protestants. It was followed by the Catholic Association calling for Catholic emancipation, using the Catholic church to organize the peasantry. In 1829, after a series of huge meetings and amid widespread rural unrest, Catholic emancipation was passed at Westminster. The Catholic Association turned its attention to the repeal of the Union. When its leadership refused to use illegal means to achieve its ends, the more militant group Young Ireland came to the fore, demanding independence or insurrection. The movement petered out, although many members would later join the Irish Republican Brotherhood, established in 1958.
In 1879 the Land League was established to organize the tenantry to protect itself against rack-renting and eviction. In some areas it virtually superseded English rule. To stave off demands for Home Rule, the Liberal government passed a series of land reforms, returning to the Irish most of the land seized by the English in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Irish nationalism and self-confidence grew. The Gaelic League was formed in 1893 to promote the use of Irish and the publication of Gaelic literature. By 1906 it had a membership of 100,000. With it came a revival of Irish sports. The League improved the position of Gaelic, which had been in serious decline since the 1800s, in both intermediate and primary schools; but the dream of a Gaelic-speaking Ireland could only be built on the economic and social rehabilitation of Gaelic-speaking areas, and this required political organization and agitation. In 1905 Sinn Féin was founded, aiming to re-establish independence by a withdrawal from Westminster and the setting up of an independent Irish Parliament in Dublin. Padraig Pearse read the Declaration of Independence from the steps of Dublin Post Office during the 1916 Easter Uprising.
In the elections of 1918 Sinn Féin swept the board. The party boycotted Parliament at Westminster and set up an Irish Parliament, the Dáil Éireann. The alternative government organized an army to support its claims for self-rule, the Irish Republican Army (IRA). By 1920 the IRA was an extremely effective guerrilla force against which, it was clear, full victory was impossible. In 1921 a truce was signed, and discussions commenced between Éamon de Valera and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. The two major stumbling blocks were Ulster separatism and the position of Ireland inside the British Empire. The Irish negotiators eventually capitulated on both points, against the wishes of many of the population, and in 1922 civil war broke out in the south between the Free State Party, which accepted the treaty, and those who opposed it. The Free State Party won, but partition was maintained, and in 1949 the Irish Free State became the Irish Republic, formally breaking its last links with the British Commonwealth.
The Irish economy languished in the 1930s, but remained solvent, and suffered from the privations of the German blockade of Britain during the Second World War. Afterwards, emigration resumed and Ireland’s population fell to its lowest level, 2.7 million, in 1960. The tourism industry was successfully promoted and offered increasing job prospects at home until the ‘Troubles’ resumed in Northern Ireland in 1969. From 1973, as a mainly agricultural economy, Ireland gained from European Economic Community (EEC) farm subsidies, also from the EEC structural funds for economic development. Government policies for attracting inward investment, especially from the United States, transformed the Irish economy from the 1980s into the ‘Celtic tiger’. By the end of the century, Ireland became a country of net immigration for the first time. However, Ireland was particularly severely affected in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, prompting recession and rising levels of unemployment, though in recent years the country’s economy has shown signs of recovery.
The first session of the Dáil (the Irish parliament) was held largely in Irish Gaelic. The 1937 Constitution made Irish the country’s main official language and English the second official language. It also laid claim to the six counties of Northern Ireland and gave the Roman Catholic Church a ‘special position’ as the church of the majority, but recognized other Christian communities and Judaism. The clauses relating to religions were removed in 1973 after Ireland joined the European Economic Community. In 1999 the clauses relating to the territorial claim over Northern Ireland were amended to give all those born in the island of Ireland the right to be part of the Irish Nation, subject to the consent of the people of Northern Ireland.
Until the 1970s teachers and all civil servants had to have competence in Irish as a requirement for jobs in education and the media. In 2007 Irish became an official European Union (EU) language.
The Constitution guarantees basic human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom from discrimination and equality before the law.
The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act 2014 established the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC), which was formed as a result of the merger of the Equality Authority and Irish Human Rights Commission. The IHREC is a statutory independent body with a remit to promote and protect equality and human rights across Ireland. The Equality Tribunal that used to review cases relating to discrimination was replaced by the Workplace Relations Commission in 2015.
The Employment Equality Acts 1998-2015, the Equal Status Act 2000 and the Equality Act 2004 provide the main measures to combat discrimination. The Equality Act of 2004 brings the other two Acts into compliance with the EU equal treatment directives on employment and race. These Acts prohibit discrimination on the grounds of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, age, disability, sexual orientation, marital status, family status and membership of the Traveller community. The Employment Equality Acts prohibit discrimination in the sphere of employment and employment related areas, while the Equal Status Act relates to the provision of goods and services. The Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989 bans inflammatory publications and speech, but poses problems for enforcement in the definitions of incitement and hatred. The Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994 tackles racism as a public order problem.
The 1998 Belfast Agreement (or Good Friday Agreement as it is widely known) following on from the conflict in Northern Ireland set up the North–South Ministerial Council for better cooperation between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Several joint bodies for management of food safety, inland waterways, etc. were set up. They include a language organization to promote Irish and Ulster-Scots. In line with the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, the government set up the Human Rights Commission under the Human Rights Commission Acts, 2000 and 2001.
The 1998 Traveller Accommodation Act set up the National Traveller Accommodation Consultative Committee and required local authorities to resolve Traveller housing and other problems. The 2002 Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act made trespass, previously a civil offence, into a criminal offence, which criminalizes the Travellers’ traditional nomadic way of life. In December 2003, at the request of the Taoiseach, a High Level Group was established under the aegis of the Cabinet Committee on Social Inclusion. Its remit was to ‘ensure that the relevant statutory agencies involved in providing the full range of services to Travellers, would focus on improving the integrated practical delivery of such services’.
Ireland has had very liberal policies with regards to immigration, which increased from 1996 but migrant workers were easily absorbed by the expanding economy. Until April 2003 Ireland’s work permit policies were almost entirely employer-led. Once employers had shown proof that ‘every effort had been made’ to recruit a European Economic Area (EEA) national before making a work permit application, they could legally recruit as many non-EEA workers as they wished. The majority of new immigrants since May 2004 were from Poland, Lithuania, Slovakia, Latvia and Estonia, according to government information. There are established Asian and US communities.
The 2003 Employment Permits Bill, which granted workers from the 10 EU accession countries free access to the Irish labour market from 1 May 2004, marked a more managed approach to work permits by the government. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the state training authority (FÁS) published a list of low-skilled jobs for which work permits will not be granted. Work permit applications for non-EU workers were turned down from late 2003. In May 2004 amnesty was offered to illegal immigrants but welfare benefits were restricted.
The liberal policy towards immigration is not mirrored in the policy towards asylum seekers. In 1994 the EU adopted the Dublin Convention that asylum seekers could be returned to the first country of entry into the EU. Ireland is typically one of the last countries for asylum seekers to enter since it is at the western extreme of the EU. In 2006 the government launched an assisted return programme for failed asylum seekers.
Workers who have lived and worked in Ireland for at least five years on a series of work permits or working visas can apply for Long Term Residency status, which lasts for five years and is renewable. This status allows workers to move freely between jobs and employers or to set up a business. Alternatively, they can apply for citizenship. A third option is to apply for ‘permission to remain without condition as to time’, but for this status eight years of legal residency is required.
Until 31 December 2004 any child born in Ireland automatically had the right to Irish nationality. From 1 January 2005 the right is not automatic for the children of non-Irish parents. If the parents have been legally resident in Ireland for three out of the previous four years before the birth of the child, the child may obtain citizenship. The law was changed to stop asylum seekers attempting to strengthen their case via their children.
Updated June 2020
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Immigrant Council of Ireland
[The National Network of Refugee, Asylum Seeker and Immigrant Support Groups]
Irish Council for Civil Liberties (An Chomhairle um Chearta Daonna)
Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC)
Free Legal Advice Centres
[Health NGO for ethnic minorities]
[Promotes tolerance, justice and social inclusion for African communities in Ireland]
Migrant Rights Centre Ireland
[Works for the human rights of migrant workers and their families]
National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism (NCCRI)
[Provides advice and develops initiatives to combat racism]
Pavee Point Travellers’ Centre
Irish Travellers Movement (ITM)
Exchange House Travellers Service
Updated June 2020
Sources and further reading
Amnesty International, Racism in Ireland: The Views of Black and Ethnic Minorities, Dublin, Amnesty International, 2001.
Darby, J., Northern Ireland: Managing Difference, London, MRG, 1995.
Dublin Travellers’ Education and Development Group, Travellers Getting Involved, Dublin, 1987.
Farrell, F. and Watt, P. (eds), Responding to Racism in Ireland, Dublin, Veritas, 2001.
Garner, S. and White A., Racist Attitudes in Ireland: Baseline Research for the Anti-Racism Awareness-Raising Programme, Dublin, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, 2000.
Jackson, H. and McHardy, A., Two Irelands: The Problem of the Double Minority, London, MRG, 1984.
Noonan, P., Travelling People in West Belfast, London, Save the Children, 1994.
Ugba, A., Active Civic Participation of Immigrants in Ireland, country report prepared for the European research project POLITIS, Oldenburg (Germany), 2005, retrieved May 2007, http://www.unioldenburg.de/politis.europe
www.eurolang.net [news agency covering topics related to lesser-used languages, linguistic diversity, stateless nations and national minorities within the European Union]
Murphy, C. and Adair, L. (eds), A Place for Peace: Glencree Centre for Reconciliation, 1974–2004, The Liffey Press, 2004.
Murphy, C. and Adair, L. (eds), Untold Stories: Protestants in the Republic of Ireland 1922–2002, The Liffey Press.
Church of Ireland Web: http://www.ireland.anglican.org/home.php
Irish Angle (Church of Ireland news and documentation website): http://www.irishangle.net/
Presbyterian Herald (newspaper), http://www.presbyterianireland.org/herald/
Bewley, V. (ed.), The Travelling People in Ireland, Veritas, 1976.
Farrell, F. and Watt, P. (eds), Responding to Racism in Ireland, Veritas.
Macalister, R.A.S. The Secret Languages of Ireland, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1937.
Pavee Point, Assimilation Policies and Outcomes: Travellers’ Experience, 2006.
Pavee Point, Review of Travellers Health using Primary Care as a Model of Good Practice, 2006.
Pavee Point, Traveller Ways, Traveller Words, Dublin: Pavee Point Publications, 1992.