Last-modified: 7 Oct 99
Part four of ten.
Frequently Asked Questions on soc.culture.irish with answers.
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1) What should I call it?
2) What should I call them?
3) Doesn't the Irish constitution lay claim to Northern Ireland?
4) What's special about elections in the Republic?
5) What are the political parties in the Republic?
6) What are the political parties in Northern Ireland?
7) Isn't contraception illegal in the Republic?
8) What about D.I.V.O.R.C.E. ?
9) Can anybody explain the abortion referendum?
10) Wasn't homosexuality banned in Ireland?
11) Where can I find the text of the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement?
Subject: 1) What should I call it?
The island is called Ireland, but it is divided into two
jurisdictions. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom,
governed from London. The remainder of the island is a separate
state, the Republic of Ireland, with its government in Dublin.
The Constitution of Ireland (Bunreacht na hEireann) states in
Article 4. "The name of the State is Éire, or in the English
language, Ireland". Some people find the use of "Éire" or
(worse) "Eire" in English irritating, but not everyone.
"Ireland" is ambiguous: it may refer to the island or to the
part governed from Dublin. You may want to say "the island of
Ireland" to avoid this ambiguity.
The following are synonyms in common usage. Some of these terms
are politically loaded: the first in each list is the best
choice if you want to make yourself clear (without committing
yourself to a particular political view).
Northern Ireland; Ulster; the North; the Six Counties
Republic of Ireland; Ireland; the South; the Twenty Six
Counties; the Free State
Subject: 2) What should I call them?
Nationalists north or south are generally content to be called
Irish. Unionists may prefer to be called "British", "Ulster-
men/women", just "from Northern Ireland" or even "Irish" (if
they are on their way to a rugby international). If you are
asking someone, "from Northern Ireland" is probably safest:
you let them choose to elaborate if they want to.
Subject: 3) Doesn't the Irish constitution lay claim to Northern Ireland?
Before the Northern Ireland Settlement of 1998, Articles 2 and
3 in the Republic's Constitution did claim the North as part
of Ireland (though they meant little in practice). If and
when the Agreement is deemed effective by the government the
amended Articles will read as follows. [The referendum put
the changes in Article 29, a traditional repository for all
kinds of constitutional changes affecting international
relations, usually of the form "the State may ratify...".]
It is the entitlement and birthright of every person born in
the island of Ireland, which includes its islands and seas,
to be part of the Irish nation. That is also the entitlement
of all persons otherwise qualified in accordance with law
to be citizens of Ireland. Furthermore, the Irish nation
cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry
living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage.
1. It is the firm will of the Irish nation, in harmony and
friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of
the island of Ireland, in all the diversity of their identities
and traditions, recognising that a united Ireland shall be
brought about only by peaceful means with the consent of a
majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both
jurisdictions in the island. Until then, the laws enacted by
the Parliament established by this Constitution shall have
the like area and extent of application as the laws enacted
by the Parliament that existed immediately before the coming
into operation of this Constitution.
2. Institutions with executive powers and functions that
are shared between those jurisdictions may be established by
their respective responsible authorities for stated purposes
and may exercise powers and functions in respect of all or
any part of the island.
See also the definitive Irish version at
Subject: 4) What's special about elections in the Republic?
A slightly unusual form of proportional representation, known
as the single transferable vote (STV), is used for elections
to the Dáil. There is more than one seat in a constituency
and voters indicate their candidates in order of preference by
putting a number next to their name on the ballot ("1" for the
favourite candidate, "2" for the next favoured, etc.).
A quota is established for each constituency when the votes
are counted. This quota is calculated as follows.
Let V be the number of valid votes.
Let S be the number of seats in the constituency.
The quota Q is
----- + 1
If there were 60,000 votes in a three seat constituency the
quota would be ((60000 / 4) + 1) = 15,001 votes.
Counts are divided into rounds. In the first round, all
first preferences are counted. At the end of each round, the
votes to be counted during the next round are determined as
- if one or more candidates receive the quota of votes they are
deemed elected; the surplus votes of the most popular candidate
are redistributed among the remaining (unelected) candidates
according to the next preference
- if no candidate has reached the quota, the candidate with
the least number of votes is eliminated and his votes are
redistributed among the remaining candidates according to the
Rounds are repeated until either all the seats are filled or the
number of vacant seats equals the number of remaining candidates.
In the latter case, the remaining candidates are deemed elected
even though they got less than the quota of votes.
If a candidate exceeds the quota on the first count, the excess
votes are distributed in proportion to _all_ the votes for that
candidate (i.e. the second preferences on all the ballots are
counted). The actual votes transferred are chosen at random
(obviously making sure that they are for the appropriate
On subsequent rounds, the votes are chosen at random _without_
first counting all the next preferences. Transferred votes are
transferred again before first preferences.
Because counting is a more complicated process than in most other
countries, it takes longer. Counting is not even started until
the day after the election and can go on for days if candidates
demand a recount. Most political parties have experts, called
tally men, who (using local knowledge and years of experience)
try to predict early on in the count what the result is going
to be. A good tally man can tell the outcome to within a few
hundred votes after only a few ballot boxes have been counted.
The first-past-the-post system is used in Northern Ireland, except
for elections to local councils and the European Parliament,
when a slightly different form of proportional STV is used.
Subject: 5) What are the political parties in the Republic?
The political parties represented in the Dáil and
their current leaders are
Fianna Fáil Bertie Ahern
Fine Gael John Bruton
Labour Party Ruairi Quinn
Progressive Democrats Mary Harney
Green Party [unknown -- maybe no leader as such?]
Sinn Féin Gerry Adams
[ This ignores the niceties of what is required to get the
privileges (offices, staff allowances ) of a party in the Dáil. ]
[ There are currently also seven independent TDs. ]
The most recent election results are from the General Election
of 6 June 1997.
Representation in Parliament
Fianna Fáil 77 seats
Fine Gael 54 seats
Labour 21 seats
Progressive Democrats 4 seats
Green Party 2 seats
Sinn Féin 1 seats
Socialist 1 seats
Independent 7 seats
Subject: 6) What are the political parties in Northern Ireland?
Within the two main groups are a number of smaller divisions,
usually defined by their representative political parties. This
list offers a spectrum of the major parties, from 'most
anti-Union' to 'most pro-Union".
Sinn Féin. Leader Gerry Adams.
The political representatives of the Republican
Movement. This is the more extreme minority of the nationalist
groups, generally regarded as being in sympathy with the IRA's
use of violence to achieve political change. Supported by
approximately 15% of the population in Northern Ireland, 1.4% in
the Irish Republic.
The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). Leader John Hume.
Regarded as the representative of moderate nationalism, it is
committed to the establishment of a single Irish nation, but
adamantly opposed to the use of violence to force this on people.
Its representatives are forthright in their criticism of the
IRA and its methods. Supported by approximately 20% of the
population in NI.
The Alliance party. Leader Sean Neeson (to be confirmed).
A centrist party often viewed as unionist in its leanings, but
its stated aims are simply to bring people in NI together as one
community. Rejects both traditional Unionism and Nationalism.
It favours local government with power shared between Catholics
and Protestants, remaining part of the UK as long as a majority
in NI want that, but with much stronger all-Ireland administrative
links. Gets up to 10% of the vote.
The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). Leader David Trimble.
The larger of the two Unionist parties, it is firmly committed to
maintaining the links with Great Britain. Not overtly religious in
nature, but has links with the protestant Orange Order. Drawing
support mainly from more moderate and middle-class unionists it
opposes the use of violence, condemning that from both IRA and
Loyalist groups such as the UVF and UFF. Gets up to one third
of the vote.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Leader Ian Paisley.
Formed in 1971 by Ian Paisley, capitalising on fears that
the mainstream party was weak. As to be expected from
its fundamentalist leader, the DUP is fiercely protestant
and pro-British in character. It draws support from the
moderate-to-extreme parts of the unionist population. Although
publicly opposed to violence, the same cannot be said for a
section of its supporters. Gets around 15% of the vote.
The Women's Coalition is a fairly new name in Northern Irish
politics. A web page can be found at
Observant readers will notice that these percentages do not add
up to 100.
For more details, see Nicholas Whyte's web site
Subject: 7) Isn't contraception illegal in the Republic?
There are no longer laws against any form of contraception
in the Republic of Ireland, apart from the RU-486 abortion
pill that is also banned in the UK. Ten years ago condoms
weren't available to under anybody under 16. Now, possibly
as a result of AIDS, these laws restricting contraceptives
have been repealed. Condom machines are now commonplace
in bars throughout the country.
Subject: 8) What about D.I.V.O.R.C.E. ?
The Constitution was amended by a referendum in November 1995 to
allow divorce in restricted circumstances. The people voted to
put the following sections into the Constitution.
"A Court designated by law may grant a dissolution of marriage
where, but only where, it is satisfied that:
i. at the date of the institution of the proceedings, the
spouses have lived apart from one another for a period
of, or periods amounting to, at least four years during
the last five years,
ii. there is no reasonable prospect of reconciliation
between the spouses,
iii. such provision as the Court considers proper having
regard to the circumstances exists or will be made
for the spouses, any children of either or both of
them and any other person prescribed by law, and
iv. any further conditions prescribed by law are
The petition by submitted by the Anti-Divorce Campaign to the
Supreme Court challenging the result of the referendum was
rejected by the Court in June 1996.
Legislation passed by the Oireachtas to regulate divorce came
into effect in March 1997. The legislation builds on existing
Subject: 9) Can anybody explain the abortion referendum?
[Note: As recommended in the "Welcome to talk.abortion"
posting, I am referring to the sides as prolife and
prochoice. This is not intended in anyway to reflect my
personal feelings on the use of these terms.]
Abortion has been illegal in Ireland since at least
1869. The 1983 referendum added a clause which
guarantees the "Right to Life" to the Unborn from the
moment of conception. The general consensus among the
prolife campaigners was that there was now a
constitutional prohibition on abortion, and abortion
would never be introduced into Ireland.
It was then illegal to give out names and addresses of
abortion clinics in Ireland. As a result no imported
magazines or newspapers were allowed to sell issues
which advertised abortion clinics.
In 1992, the Attorney General placed an injunction
against a 14-year-old rape victim (Ms. X) going to
England to have an abortion. The family of rape victim X
had approached the police and offered to let the aborted
foetus be used as evidence against the rapist. Police
then approached the Attorney General who went to the
High Court as allowing X to go abroad would breach the
"Right to Life" of X's foetus. The High Court then
granted the injunction.
In a state of near national hysteria, the Supreme Court
overturned the ruling, and declared that under the 1983
amendment, Ms. X was entitled to have an abortion in
Ireland as she was threatening to commit suicide. The
preliminary verdict was given on Friday, X went to the
UK that weekend to have an abortion but miscarried
before the abortion actually took place. The full
ruling followed on Tuesday suggesting that X has a right
to have an abortion in Ireland.
The government moved fairly quickly, and a second
referendum was held in November 1992, at the same time
as a General election. The referendum posed three
questions, dealing with the Right to travel, the Right
to information and the Substantive Issue (are abortions
ever allowed in Ireland?). While people voted for the
right to information and the right to travel, the
results from the vote on the Substantive issue were less
conclusive, with both sides claiming victory. However,
the government failed to legislate on the basis of the
ruling in X.
The government's case was not helped by the Irish Medical
Council ruling that any doctor who performs an abortion
should be struck off the register, a decision later
endorsed by the Irish Medical Organisation. The majority
of the IMO regard abortion as unnecessary for
life-saving reasons and doctors can be struck off. The
Medical Insurance companies (for doctors) believe
failure to perform abortion in life threatening
circumstance could result in negligence charges.
The whole situation is desperately confused and no one
knows under what circumstances abortion is legal or illegal.
No government has been eager to introduce laws to regulate
abortion, despite repeated criticisms of the current
situation by the judiciary. Women who want abortions
usually go to England, often without the knowledge of
[Note: Abortion is technically legal in the North,
but rarely carried out.]
Subject: 10) Wasn't homosexuality banned in Ireland?
Homosexual acts were illegal in Ireland up until the summer of
1993. The Offences against the Person Act lifted the ban, and
declared the age of consent to be 17, the same as that for
acts between heterosexuals.
Subject: 11) Where can I find the text of the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement?
The "Good Friday Agreement" of 1998 is available in hypertext form at
End of Irish FAQ part 4