Ireland Today: The Pluck of the Irish

By Rick Steves and Pat O'Connor

Visitors returning to Ireland are amazed at the country's transformation. Although there are still some tense areas in the North — as there are in all big cities — the peace process is grinding forward.

Through the late 1990s, Ireland's booming, globalized economy grew a whopping 40 percent and property values tripled (between 1995 and 2004), earning the Republic the nickname "The Celtic Tiger." After Ireland joined the European Union in 1973, 12 billion dollars of EU money sped Irish development, and the Irish government effectively used business-friendly tax policies to attract foreign investment. After 1980, when Apple Computer set up shop here, a stream of multinational and American corporations opened offices in Ireland. Ireland has one of the youngest populations in Europe. And those young Irish, beneficiaries of one of Europe's best educational systems, provide these corporations with a highly skilled, youthful, and educated workforce. Ireland's pharmaceutical, chemical, and software industries are well-established.

Of course, with rapid growth come problems. Urban sprawl, big-city traffic snarls, water and air pollution, and the homogenous nature of globalization all left their mark. By 2003, the rising economic tide had lifted Ireland to float beside Finland as one of the two most expensive countries in the European Union.

With the island's close business ties to American partners, its economy is highly dependent on US market fluctuations. The Irish say, "When America sneezes, we get pneumonia." The global recession in 2008-2010 was a cold shower on Ireland's long period of economic good times. Still, the Celtic Tiger economy, although tamed by the recession, taught the formerly downtrodden Irish that their luck can change for the better.

Ireland had the most liberal citizenship laws in the European Union, granting Irish citizenship to anyone born on Irish soil (even if neither parent had an Irish passport). This led to a flood of pregnant immigrant women arriving from Eastern Europe and Africa to give birth in Ireland for their children to gain EU citizenship. Families with a child born in an EU country face fewer border restrictions, increasing their chances of moving into one of the 27 EU nations. In 2004, the Irish people closed that legal loophole in a referendum vote.

While the Irish are embracing the new economies and industries of the 21st century, when it comes to sex and marriage, many still see their island as an oasis of morality and traditional values (homosexuality was decriminalized in 1993). The Catholic Church continues to exert influence on Irish society. But since the Church no longer controls the legislature, the Irish government — driven by the popular demands of the youngest population in Europe — will undoubtedly push for some changes on the following issues.

Birth Control: People in the US take for granted that birth control is readily available. But Ireland only began allowing the widespread sale of condoms in 1993.

Abortion: Abortion is still illegal in Ireland. Women who choose to terminate their pregnancies must go to England for help — and counseling Irish women to go to England for abortions has only been legal since 1993. This was a big issue in 2001, when the Dutch anchored their "abortion ship" in Dublin's harbor, and again in 2002, when a referendum legalizing abortion was narrowly defeated. Watch for more referendums proposing the legalization of abortion. Many Irish refer to this as their next Civil War

Divorce: Ireland voted to legalize divorce in 1995 — but only on very strict conditions. After the divorce papers are signed, it takes a four-year waiting period before the divorce is considered official, and little compensation is offered to Irish women who work as homemakers.

What About Northern Ireland?
  • Northern Ireland is 5,400 square miles, about the size of Connecticut.
  • Population is 1.7 million. About 40 percent are Protestant (mostly Presbyterian and Anglican) and 40 percent Catholic. Another 5 percent profess different religions, and 15 percent claim no religious ties.
  • As it's part of the UK, Northern Ireland uses the pound sterling.

When Ireland won its independence in 1921 (after a bloody guerilla war against British rule), 26 of the island's 32 counties became the Irish Free State, ruled from Dublin with dominion status in the British Commonwealth — like Canada. In 1949, they left the Commonwealth and became the Republic of Ireland, removing all political ties with Britain.

Meanwhile, the six remaining northeastern counties (the only ones with a Protestant majority), chose not to join the Irish Free State in 1922, and remained part of the UK.

In 1967, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement, inspired by the African-American civil rights movement in the US, organized marches and demonstrations demanding equal treatment for Catholics (better housing, job opportunities, and voting rights). Protestant Unionist Orangemen countered by marching through Catholic neighborhoods, flaunting their politically dominant position in the name of tradition, and thus provoking riots. In 1969, Britain sent troops to help Northern Ireland keep the peace and met resistance from the IRA (Irish Republican Army), which saw them as an occupying army supporting the Protestant pro-British majority.

From the 1970s to the 1990s, the North was a low-level battlefield, with the IRA using terrorist tactics to achieve their political ends. The Troubles, which claimed some 3,000 lives, continued with bombings, marches, hunger strikes, rock-throwing, and riots (notably Derry's Bloody Sunday in 1972), interrupted by cease-fires, broken cease-fires, and a string of peace agreements.

A 1985 agreement granted Dublin a consulting role in the Northern Ireland government. Unionists bucked this idea, and violence escalated. That same year, Belfast City Hall draped a huge, defiant banner under its dome, proclaiming, Belfast Says No.

In 1994, the banner came down. In the 1990s — with Ireland's membership in the EU, the growth of its economy, and the weakening of the Catholic Church's influence — the consequences of a united Ireland became slightly less threatening to the Unionists. Also in 1994, the IRA declared a cease-fire, and the Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) followed suit.

The Nationalists wanted British troops out of Northern Ireland, while the Unionists demanded that the IRA turn in its arms. Optimists hailed the signing of a breakthrough peace plan in 1998, called the "Good Friday Accord" by Nationalists, or the "Belfast Agreement" by Unionists. This led to the emotional release of prisoners on both sides in 2000.

The IRA finally "verifiably put their arms beyond use" in 2005, and backed the political process. In 2009, most Loyalist paramilitary groups did the same.

In 2006, I was stunned to discover that the British Army surveillance towers in Derry — disturbing fixtures since my very first visit — had been torn down. In the spring of 2007, the unthinkable happened when Gerry Adams, leader of the ultra-Nationalist Sein Fein party, sat down across a table from Reverend Ian Paisley, head of the ultra-Unionist DUP party. It was their first face-to-face meeting. Also in 2007, London returned control of Northern Ireland to the popularly elected Northern Ireland Assembly. Perhaps most important of all, the British Army formally ended its 38-year-long Operation Banner campaign.

This isn't a fight over Protestant and Catholic religious differences — it's about whether Northern Ireland will stay part of the UK or become part of the Republic of Ireland. The indigenous Irish of Northern Ireland, who generally want to become part of the Republic of Ireland, happen to be Catholic. The descendants of Scottish and English settlers in Northern Ireland, who generally want to remain part of Britain, happen to be Protestant.

Today, the spiraling violence of the 1970s and 80s seem to be a thing of the past. Tourists in Northern Ireland are no longer considered courageous (or reckless). You're safer in Northern Ireland than in most major US cities. You have to look for trouble to find it here.

Just don't seek out spit-and-sawdust pubs in working-class Protestant neighborhoods and sing Catholic songs. Tourists notice the tension mainly during the "marching season" (Easter–Aug, peaking in early July). July 12 is traditionally the most confrontational day of the year in the North, when proud Protestant Unionist Orangemen march to celebrate their Britishness and their separate identity from the Republic of Ireland (often through staunchly Nationalist Catholic neighborhoods). Lie low if you stumble onto any big orange parades.

Pat O'Connor is the co-author of the Rick Steves Ireland guidebook.