Freedom in the World 2021 - Ireland

/ 100
Political Rights 39 / 40
Civil Liberties 58 / 60
Last Year's Score & Status
97 / 100 Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.


Ireland is a stable democracy in which political rights and civil liberties are respected and defended. There is some limited societal discrimination, especially against the traditionally nomadic Irish Travellers. Corruption scandals have plagued the police force, and domestic violence remains a problem.

Key Developments in 2020

  • In the historic February general elections, Sinn Féin won 37 seats (24.5 percent), its best result ever and only one less than Fianna Fáil’s 38 seats (22.2 percent). Fine Gael won 35 seats (20.9 percent), and the Green Party 12 (7.1 percent). Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil formed a government—the two rival parties had never before governed together—with the Green Party in June.
  • The government passed the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020 in March in order to combat the coronavirus pandemic. The law gave new emergency powers to government ministries and the police to enforce lockdowns and curfews. By the end of the year, over 91,000 people had tested positive for the virus, and 2,237 people had died, according to government statistics provided to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4

The Taoiseach, or prime minister, is nominated by the House of Representatives (Dàil Eireann) and formally appointed by the president. Thus, the legitimacy of the prime minister is largely dependent on the conduct of Dàil elections, which historically have been free and fair. The Dàil elected Micheál Martin as Taoiseach in June 2020 following a general election in February, to lead the coalition government between Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and the Green Party.

The president is elected to up to two seven-year terms, and as chief of state has mostly ceremonial duties. Michael D. Higgins was reelected in 2018. Voting in presidential elections has historically been free and fair.

A2 0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4

The Dàil’s 160 members are elected in multimember districts through a proportional representation system, and their terms last five years. The Senate (Seanad Éireann) contains 60 seats; 43 members are indirectly chosen through an electoral college, while 11 are selected by the Taoiseach and 6 are selected from constituencies that represent some higher education institutions.

The February 2020 Dàil election saw no major irregularities or unequal campaigning. In a historic result, Sinn Féin won 37 seats (24.5 percent), its best result ever and only one less than Fianna Fáil’s 38 seats (22.2 percent). Fine Gael won 35 seats (20.9 percent), and the Green Party 12 (7.1 percent). In June, Fianna Fáil formed a historic coalition government with Fine Gael—the two rivals had never before governed together—and the Green Party.

A3 0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 4 / 4

Ireland’s electoral framework is strong and government bodies hold credible polls. The government renewed its commitments to establish an Electoral Commission in the 2020 Programme for Government, released in June.

Ireland frequently holds referendums, especially on European Union (EU) treaties.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 0-4 pts
Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 4 / 4

Political parties in Ireland are free to form and compete. Among the main parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael do not differ widely in ideology, despite their long history as rivals; they represent the successors of opposing sides in the nation’s 1922–23 civil war. Other key parties include Sinn Féin—a left-wing republican party that leads the opposition—the Labour Party, and the Green Party.

B2 0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4 / 4

Opposition parties generally do not encounter restrictions or harassment that affects their ability to gain power through elections, and most of the main parties have been part of government at some point in the history of the state.

B3 0-4 pts
Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means? 4 / 4

People’s political choices are generally free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, and other powerful groups.

B4 0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 4 / 4

Women are active in politics but are underrepresented, holding 22.5 percent of the Dàil’s seats.

While ethnic minority and marginalized groups are generally free to participate in politics, Irish Travellers and Roma have little representation. However, in June 2020, Eileen Flynn became the first Irish Traveller woman to be appointed as a Senator. Travellers were formally recognized as an Indigenous ethnic group in 2017, the same year the National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy 2017–21 was launched.

C Functioning of Government

C1 0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 4 / 4

Elected officials freely determine government policy. In March 2020, the government passed the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020 to combat the coronavirus pandemic. The law gave new emergency powers to government ministries and the police to enforce lockdowns and curfews.

C2 0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 3 / 4

Ireland has a recent history of problems with political corruption but has introduced anticorruption legislation in recent years. The Corruption Offences Act, which took effect in 2018, modernized and consolidated existing anticorruption laws, though critics claimed that the legislation did not adequately address bribery.

Scandals involving Ireland’s police (An Garda Síochána) have raised concerns about a lack of safeguards against corruption in that sector. In November 2020, eight members of the Garda were suspended following an inquiry into corruption.

A multi-agency review group examining anticorruption and antifraud structures in Ireland, established after the government completed a 2017 study of white-collar crime, made numerous recommendations in December 2020, including establishing an Advisory Council against Economic Crime and Corruption.

C3 0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 4 / 4

The public has broad access to official information under the 2014 Freedom of Information Act, though partial exemptions remain for the police and some other agencies. A Transparency Code requires open records on the groups and individuals that advise public officials on policy.

The government has been criticized for failing to consult meaningfully with civil society groups and relevant stakeholders in policy formulation, particularly regarding the Roma, Travellers, and people living with disabilities.

Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 4 / 4

Irish media are free and independent, and present a variety of viewpoints. However, the media sector is highly concentrated, with Independent News and Media (INM) controlling much of the newspaper market. The government has promised reforms of Ireland’s restrictive defamation laws, which continue to receive criticism, including from the European Commission.

D2 0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4 / 4

Freedom of religion is constitutionally guaranteed. Although religious oaths are still required from senior public officials, there is no state religion, and adherents of other faiths face few impediments to religious expression. In recent years, the Roman Catholic Church has notably declined in the public eye, following a series of sexual abuse and other scandals involving the Church and its clergy.

D3 0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4 / 4

Academic freedom is respected. The Catholic Church operates approximately 90 percent of Ireland’s schools, most of which include religious education from which parents may exempt their children. The constitution requires equal funding for schools run by different denominations.

D4 0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4 / 4

There are no significant impediments to open and free private discussion, including in personal online communications. However, Ireland’s national identity card—the Public Services Card (PSC)—continued to cause controversy in 2020 due to data storage and privacy concerns.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 4 / 4

The right to assemble freely is respected, and peaceful demonstrations are held each year. However, emergency lockdown legislation adopted due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 placed major restrictions on freedom of assembly. Arrests for violating lockdown regulations took place at protests in Dublin. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) criticized a criminal investigation into a Black Lives Matter protest held in Dublin in June.

E2 0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 4 / 4

Freedom of association is upheld, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) can operate freely.

E3 0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 4 / 4

Labor unions operate without hindrance, and collective bargaining is legal and unrestricted.

F Rule of Law

F1 0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 4 / 4

Ireland has a generally independent judiciary and a legal system based on common law. The long-awaited Judicial Council, a body which promotes judicial excellence, good conduct, and the independence of the judiciary, was established in December 2019 and met for the first time in February 2020.

F2 0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 4 / 4

Due process generally prevails in civil and criminal matters. However, the police force has been affected by repeated corruption scandals in recent years. A new police commissioner was appointed in 2018; his predecessor resigned in 2017 after the irregular use of breathalyzer tests and questions about her approach toward whistleblowers stoked controversy.

The police received new powers to prosecute people who violated lockdown restrictions in 2020, as a part of legislation passed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. In October, the police were criticized for searching student accommodations in Cork after they broke up a house party the previous month that had violated lockdown rules.

F3 0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 3 / 4

Irish prisons and detention facilities are frequently dangerous, unsanitary, overcrowded, and ill-equipped for prisoners with mental illness. However, the Irish Prison Service appears to have coped relatively well with the impact of COVID-19, submitting a “best practice” report to the World Health Organization (WHO) in June 2020.

Some politicians and communities have expressed concern about the impact of the United Kingdom’s departure from the EU (known as Brexit) on aspects of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended a period of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles; some concerns relate to a perceived risk of unrest at the Northern Ireland border. However, the threat of violence in Ireland remained low in 2020.

A series of official inquiries in recent years have detailed decades of past physical, sexual, and emotional abuse—including forced labor as recently—against women and children in state institutions and by Catholic priests and nuns from the early 20th century until 1996, as well as collusion to hide the abuse. In 2015, the government launched a compensation scheme for sexual abuse survivors, though there were some instances of applicants being inappropriately denied compensation. In 2019, former prime minister Leo Varadkar issued a state apology over sexual abuse in schools. In December 2020, the government commission investigating the Catholic Church’s and the State’s complicity in the system that enabled the abuse announced that a final report regarding the Church-run “Mother and Baby Homes” would be published in January 2021.

F4 0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 3 / 4

According to a report from the Irish Network Against Racism, the number of reported racist incidents in Ireland in 2020 was almost double that in 2019. While existing legislation bans hate speech, Ireland lacks comprehensive hate-crime laws, and civil society organizations have criticized the laws that do exist as being out of date and ineffective. Following public consultations throughout the year, in December 2020 the justice minister announced plans to introduce new hate crime legislation in 2021 that would make it a criminal offense.

The EU Agency for Fundamental Rights reported in September 2020 that two-thirds of the Irish Travellers and Roma in Ireland face discrimination based on their ethnicity. The Council of Europe called the National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy 2017–21 ineffective in a June 2019 report, and the government has committed to reviewing the strategy as part of its 2020 Programme for Government.

In 2020, concerns continued to be raised that people with disabilities face housing issues, are persistently institutionalized, and have suffered a severe reduction of social benefits in recent years. Advocacy groups criticized the government for underfunding disability services during the COVID-19 pandemic. There also have been concerns raised about Department of Health’s guidance on ethical considerations of those in critical care as they relate to people with long-term conditions.

Irish law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, but some social stigma against LGBT+ people persists.

The asylum application process is complex, and asylum seekers can be housed for lengthy periods in poor living conditions in a system known as Direct Provision. An advisory group recommended in October 2020 that the government end Direct Provision by 2023.

The 2015 International Protection Law expedites asylum procedures but focuses on enabling deportations rather than identifying and processing cases. In August 2020, the Irish Refugee Council (IRC), an NGO that supports asylum seekers, published a report which showed that 55 percent of asylum seekers interviewed felt unsafe and 50 percent felt they were unable to socially distance during the pandemic; a temporary Direct Provision center set up in March 2020 experienced a large COVID-19 outbreak.

Discrimination in the workplace on the basis of gender is illegal, though there is still a substantial gender pay gap.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 4 / 4

There are ordinarily no restrictions on travel or the ability to change one’s place of residence, employment, or education. However, emergency legislation due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 has placed major restrictions on freedom of movement to and from Ireland but also within it, though the measures were usually implemented in conjunction with a rise of coronavirus cases. The pandemic is likely to exacerbate Ireland’s housing crisis, particularly for low-income workers, according to a December 2020 KBC Bank.

G2 0-4 pts
Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 4 / 4

Private businesses are free to operate, and property rights are generally respected.

G3 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 4 / 4

Individuals in Ireland have gained expanded social freedoms in recent years. In a 2015 referendum, voters extended marriage rights to same-sex couples. That same year, the Children and Family Relationships Act extended adoption rights to same-sex and cohabiting couples, and the Gender Recognition Act allowed transgender individuals to obtain legal recognition without medical or state intervention, and—for married transgender people—without divorcing. In a 2018 referendum, voters abolished a constitutional amendment that made nearly all abortions illegal, and health providers began performing abortions in January 2019.

That same month, Ireland enacted the Domestic Violence Act 2018, which criminalized forms of emotional and psychological abuse. However, domestic and sexual violence against women remain serious problems, and marginalized and immigrant women have particular difficulty accessing support. In June 2020, figures released by An Garda Síochána showed a 25 percent rise in cases of domestic violence, linked to the COVID-19 pandemic.

G4 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 4 / 4

People generally enjoy equality of opportunity. Workers have rights and protections under employment legislation. Although the government works to combat human trafficking and protect victims, undocumented migrant workers remain at risk of trafficking and labor exploitation. During the COVID-19 pandemic, journalists reported that working conditions in Ireland’s meat processing plants were unsafe and posed a high risk of spreading the virus.