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EACEA National Policies Platform:Eurydice
Historical development


1.Political, social and economic background and trends

1.1Historical development

Last update: 27 November 2023

The history of Ireland, which includes many instances of invasion and settlement from abroad, has resulted in a rich mixture of ancestry and traditions among Irish people today. The island has been inhabited for about 9,000 years. Into the 16th and 17th centuries the entire country was brought under English control. Much of the old Gaelic system was overthrown during the 16th and 17th centuries in particular with the Tudor and subsequent plantations. Irish lands, especially in Ulster, were confiscated and colonised with Protestant English and Scottish settlers, who, largely because of religious differences did not assimilate with the Catholic native population. This process was intensified after the victory of William III in the Wars of 1689-91. The majority of the population of Ireland remained Roman Catholic. During the 18th century under the Penal Laws, the Roman Catholic and dissenter populations of Ireland were curtailed in their economic, social and political participation in Irish life. These laws were repealed in the early part of the 19th century.

In 1801 the Act of Union of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland came into operation, ending four centuries of a separate Irish parliament. A single parliament then served all of Great Britain and Ireland. One hundred members represented Ireland in the new House of Commons in Westminster and thirty-two additional members became part of the House of Lords in London. A representative of the ruling monarch was appointed as resident Lord Lieutenant and head of the executive government in Ireland. A Chief Secretary acted as his assistant and dealt with the executive functions of government. Irish legislative matters were dealt with in Westminster. However, separate legislation continued to be enacted for Ireland as for other parts of the United Kingdom. Thus there were distinct policies with regard to local government, agriculture and land reform, law and order, health and education.

In the latter half of the 19th century the executive structure of the government of Ireland developed under the prevailing Lord Lieutenant and Chief Secretary. Thus, various boards and commissions were established under the Chief Secretary. These employed growing numbers of officials or public servants to deal with such matters as education, health, and local government in Ireland. There were also officials working in Ireland who were part of various British structures such as the post office.

Free primary education was introduced in 1831 and evolved as a religious denominational system. An Intermediate Education Act was introduced in 1878. Free second level education was introduced in 1967.

In 1898 the system of local government in Ireland was changed by legislation and rural district councils were introduced. By 1922, therefore, there was a large civil service already in existence as part of an administrative structure that had developed over the years. The organisation and structure of the modern state of the Republic of Ireland has much of its origin in the bureaucratic developments of the 19th century. During that time a centralised education system commenced; health, welfare, security and postal services commenced, and the beginnings of other aspects of Irish infrastructure were put in place.

In January 1919 a War of Independence began against the British. The Irish Republican Army began a series of attacks on the Royal Irish Constabulary and the Crown Forces in Ireland. Following a general election in 1919, Dáil Éireann was set up in Dublin as an Irish parliament. The War of Independence lasted until July 1921 when a truce was agreed. The Government of Ireland Act, 1920, had proposed partition with one parliament in Dublin and one in Belfast. On 6 December 1921 the Anglo-Irish Treaty ratified this and established the Irish Free State, which consisted of 26 counties. Thus, the majority of the island was to be a Free State, but remaining within the Commonwealth. The 6 northern counties were to remain in the United Kingdom.

The result of this partition was a Civil War between those who supported the Treaty (the ‘Free Staters’) and the anti-treaty group (or Republicans). The Civil War ended in April 1923 with the pro-Treaty group victorious. A truce was agreed in May. This Anglo-Irish Treaty marked a change in the meaning of the term the British Empire. The Treaty described the Irish Free State as a co-equal member of the Community of Nations forming the British Commonwealth of Nations. Ireland then became an independent member of the League of Nations.

The influence of being part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland had an effect on developments in the new Free State from 1922. Some roles and offices in the Constitution of the Free State reflected that legacy. The administration of the new State was provided by a pre-existing professional civil service. The Free State was a new reality from 1922 but the influences of the past were evident at constitutional, administrative and political levels.

In 1922 when the British Parliament transferred the administration to the new Irish Free State some 21,000 existing civil servants accepted the option to become employees of the Free State. The Ministers and Secretaries Act, 1924, provided the legislative basis for grades and classifications with the eleven departments of the civil service.

Ireland joined the European Economic Community (EEC), now European Union (EU), in 1973.