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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Ireland : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date June 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Ireland : Overview, June 2008, available at: [accessed 4 October 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Updated June 2008


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.


Main languages: English, Irish

Minority groups include Protestants 146,226 (3.7%) and Travellers 23,681 (0.6%).

Main religions: Roman Catholic 4.5 million (88.4%), Church of Ireland (Anglicans) 115,611 (3%), Presbyterians 20,582, Methodists 10,033 and Jews 1,790.

The Irish number 3.5 million or 92 per cent of the population, the British 103,500 (2.7%), and those with dual Irish and other nationality 49,300 (1.3%). In the 2002 Census, 3.6 million were Irish and 224,261 (5.8%) were non-nationals, 77 per cent of whom were British. The majority of the rest are from other European countries.

Between 2002 and 2006 net inward migration was 46,000 a year, according to government statistics. Since May 2004 there has been a large increase in work permits granted to immigrants, especially from Poland, Lithuania, Slovakia, Latvia and Estonia. In 2002 the main nationalities of asylum seekers were Nigerian, Romanian, Moldovan, Zimbabwean, Ukrainian and Polish.

Irish language speakers were 1.2 million in 2004 (28%).


Following the Irish War of Independence from 1919 to 1921, the Anglo-Irish Treaty set up the Irish Free State without six of the nine counties of Ulster and gave the Free State self-governing dominion status within the British Empire. 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 and in 1949 the Irish Free State became the Irish Republic, formally breaking its last links with the British Commonwealth.

The 1937 Constitution laid claim to the six counties of Northern Ireland. It also gave Roman Catholic Church a 'special position' as the church of the majority, but recognized other Christian and Jewish sects. 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.

One-third of the small community of Protestants left the Irish Free State in the 1920s.

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 tourist 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 EC farm subsidies, also from the EC 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.


The first session of the Dail (the Irish parliament) was held largely in Irish Gaelic. The 1937 Constitution makes Irish the main official language and English the second official language. Teachers and all civil servants had to have competence in Irish until the 1970s, when this requirement was applied to jobs in education and the media only. Irish has not been an official language of the European Union because the Irish government did not insist that it should be at accession in 1973. However, in 2007 Irish has become an official EU language.

The constitution guarantees basic human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom from discrimination and equality before the law.

The Employment Equality Act 1998, 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, religion, age, disability, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, and membership of the Traveller community. The Employment Equality Act prohibits discrimination in the sphere of employment and vocational training, while the Equal Status Act relates to the provision of goods and services. The Equality Authority promotes non-discrimination and the Equality Tribunal enforces the provisions of the Acts.

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, on 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 regard 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 are 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 labor 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.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

The number of Irish-speakers has increased from 16 per cent of the population in 1922 to around 28 per cent in 2004. An estimated 8 per cent of people use the language regularly, most of them in the Gaeltacht, the sparsely populated western seaboard. Irish is the language of instruction in an extensive network of primary schools; at secondary level Irish is mainly taught as a second language. There is no daily newspaper published in Irish, but some have Irish language articles. Books are published in Irish. Public service broadcaster RTE has two main television channels that broadcast in English and an Irish language channel operated by a separate subsidiary company. RTE has four radio stations, including RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta which broadcasts entirely in Irish largely for the Gaeltacht community, but also for all Irish-speakers in Ireland. Irish and English language programmes are also transmitted on RTE Europe for overseas Irish. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) radio transmits programmes in Irish to all of Ireland.

The government has set up various programmes in education, health care and housing to help the Traveller community. However, local authorities have failed to provide sufficient housing for Travellers while evicting them from properties and from public land. Currently, camping on private or public land is punishable by one month in jail and/or a €3,800 fine and the confiscation of property. Traveller groups welcomed the Taoiseach's (prime minister's) 2003 initiative to improve delivery of services to Travellers but complained that no Traveller organizations are represented on the High Level Group to coordinate services to the community. At the same time other structures set up to help the community are no longer being convened. Traveller organizations have advocated the establishment of a Traveller Agency or a Traveller Accommodation Agency to monitor, coordinate and, where necessary, enforce policy. But at present, while the legislation exists to provide Traveller accommodation, there are significant failures in implementation. In 1998 the number of Travellers seeking accommodation was 1,200 and in 2006 the figure had risen to 1,400. Travellers have also called for cross-border cooperation between Ireland and Northern Ireland as extended Traveller families live on both sides of the border. In June 2008, the Irish Traveller Movement decided to petition the Department of Justice for official recognition as an ethnic minority.

Since the 1998 Belfast Agreement, or Good Friday Agreement, regarding Northern Ireland, the Irish government makes available grants to NGOs in Northern Ireland and Ireland which promote peace between different religious communities. Protestant communities in Ireland benefit from this programme.

The government launched its National Plan against Racism in January 2005 which consisted of measures to create a more integrated society. The plan, which runs from 2005 to 2008, includes intercultural guidelines to 23,000 primary school teachers, anti-racism and diversity plans in towns and cities, greater recruitment of minorities to the Gardaí (the police force of the Irish Republic) and other measures to encourage greater reporting of racist incidents, research into racism and criminal law and an anti-racism campaign in sport.

Racist violence has risen with the increase of new minorities especially since 1999. However, the level of crime generally is lower in Ireland than many other EU countries. Police data of incidents is insufficient because of a lack of definition of racist incidents until 2002. Forty-three offences with a racist motive were recorded in 2001, 102 in 2002 and 68 in 2003. However, NGOs claim that the amount of racist incidents and violence is much higher.

Very few asylum seekers are granted asylum, or 'leave to remain'. Some are detained in prison and there is an assisted repatriation scheme.

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