Main articles: History of Ireland, History of the Republic of Ireland
The difference between the island of Ireland (which was once governed as a unit) and the Republic of Ireland (which covers 26 of the 32 counties on the island) is a product of complex constitutional developments in the first half of the twentieth century.
From 1 January 1801 until 6 December 1922 Ireland as one unit was part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1919, most Irish MPs elected in the 1918 British general election declined to take their seats in the British House of Commons. Instead they set up a rival extra-legal Irish parliament called Dáil Éireann. This Dáil in January 1919 issued a Unilateral Declaration of Independence in the name of a proclaimed Irish Republic. In reality this republic received no international recognition. After a bitterly fought Anglo-Irish War (also known as the Irish War of Independence) representatives of the British government and the Irish Republic's Aireacht (cabinet) in 1921 negotiated an Anglo-Irish Treaty and created a whole new system of legal Irish self government, known as dominion status.
A new internationally recognised Irish state called the Irish Free State (in the Irish language Saorstát Éireann) was created. The new Free State was in theory to cover the entire island, subject to the proviso that Northern Ireland (which had been created as a separate entity under the Government of Ireland Act 1920) could opt out and choose to remain part of the United Kingdom, which it duly did. The remaining 26 counties of Ireland became the Irish Free State, a constitutional monarchy over which the British monarch reigned (from 1927 with the title King of Ireland). It had a Governor-General, a bicameral parliament, a cabinet called the Executive Council and a prime minister called the President of the Executive Council. The constitution was called the Constitution of the Irish Free State.
On the 29 December 1937 a new constitution Bunreacht na hÉireann came into being. It replaced the Irish Free State by a new state called Éire, or, in the English language, Ireland. Though this state's constitutional structures provided for a President of Ireland instead of a king, it was not a republic. The principal key role possessed by a head of state, that of representing the state symbolically internationally remained vested in statute law in the King as an organ. On 1 April 1949 the Republic of Ireland Act declared Éire a republic, with the functions previously given to the King given instead to the President of Ireland.
Though the official name of the state remained Éire,(Article 4, "The name of the state is Éire, or in the English language, Ireland") the term Republic of Ireland (officially just the description of the new state), came to be used as its name. While the Republic chooses to use the word Ireland to describe itself, particularly in the diplomatic sphere (thus it is always the President of Ireland and the Constitution of Ireland), many states avoid using that term because of the existence of a second Ireland, Northern Ireland, and because the 1937 constitution claimed that the south had jurisdiction over the north. Using the word 'Ireland' was taken as accepting that claim and so caused offence in Northern Ireland. That claim, in what was known as Articles 2 and 3 of the 1937 constitution, was repealed in 1999.
The Irish Free State/Éire remained a member of the then British Commonwealth until the declaration of a republic in April 1949. Under Commonwealth rules declaration of a republic automatically terminates membership of the association. Only in 1950 were the rules changed to allow India as a republic to remain in the Commonwealth. Although Ireland ceased to be a member and chose not to re-apply for membership, it retained many of the privileges of Commonwealth membership. To this day, for example, Irish citizens resident in the United Kingdom enjoy all the rights of citizenship, including the right to stand for office in local and parliamentary elections and to serve in the British forces.
Ireland joined the United Nations in 1955 and the European Economic Community (now called the European Union) in 1973. Irish governments have sought the peaceful unification of Ireland and have cooperated with Britain against the violent conflict between paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles. A peace settlement for Northern Ireland, known as the Belfast Agreement and approved in 1998 in a vote in both the Republic and Northern Ireland, is currently being implemented.
Main article: Politics of the Republic of Ireland
The Republic of Ireland is a republic, with a parliamentary system of government. The President of Ireland (Uachtaráin na hÉireann), who serves as head of state, is elected for a 7-year term and can be re-elected only once. The President is largely a figurehead but can still carry out certain constitutional powers and functions, aided by the Council of State, an advisory body. The prime minister, the Taoiseach, is appointed by the president on the nomination of parliament. The Taoiseach is normally the leader of the political party, or a coalition, which wins the most seats in the national elections.
The bicameral parliament, the Oireachtas, consists of a Senate, the Seanad Éireann, and a House of Representatives, the Dáil Éireann. The Seanad is composed of 60 members; 11 nominated by the Taoiseach, 6 elected by the national universities, and 43 elected from panels of candidates established on a vocational basis. The Dáil has 166 members, Teachtaí Dála or Deputies, elected to represent multi-seat constituencies under the system of proportional representation by means of the single transferable vote. Under the Irish constitution (Bunreacht na hÉireann), parliamentary elections must be held at least every 7 years, though a lower limit may be set by statute law. The current statutory maximum term is every 5 years.
The Government (Án Rialtas) is constitutionally limited to 15 members. No more than two members of the Government can be selected from the Senate, and the Taoiseach, Tánaiste (deputy prime minister) and Minister for Finance must be members of the Dáil. The current government is made up of a coalition of two parties; Fianna Fáil under Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and the Progressive Democrats under Tánaiste Mary Harney. The main opposition in the current Dáil is made up of Fine Gael and Labour. Smaller parties such as Sinn Féin and the Green Party also have representation in Dáil Éireann.
Main article: Counties of Ireland
The Republic of Ireland is traditionally described as having 26 counties, and these continue in use in cultural, historical and sporting contexts. As local government units, however, some have been restructured, with County Dublin broken up into four new counties in the 1990s, and County Tipperary having been administratively two separate counties for generations, giving a present-day total of 30 administrative counties (plus four cities -- Cork, Galway, Limerick, and Waterford -- which are administered separately from the remainder of their respective counties):