In recent years, tax breaks and low inflation have attracted more foreign investment to the Republic and many multinationals, especially computing and chemical companies, have subsidiaries here. Ireland joined the single European currency on 1 January 1999, and the Republic’s economy continues to grow while unemployment is falling.
Another important industry is tourism. The South receives over 3 million visitors a year and visitors to the North are now steadily increasing.
Traditionally, Northern Ireland had far more industry than the South, but during the 25 years of the Troubles, old heavy industries, such as shipbuilding, declined and new investors were scared away. However, the election of members to the new Northern Ireland
Assembly in June 1998 ushered in a new political and economic era for the North. For both parts of Ireland, geography is still a barrier to prosperity.
Located on the periphery of Europe, the island is isolated from its main markets and thus saddled with high transport costs. Fortunately, subsidies from the EU have helped improve the infrastructure in the Republic.
RELIGION AND POLITICS
The influence of Catholicism is strong. In the Republic, the Church runs most schools, along with some hospitals and social services. Irish Catholicism runs the gamut from missionary zeal to simple piety. According to some estimates, over 90 per cent of the population goes to Mass. Religion plays an important role in the politics of the Republic and moral conservatism is evident in attitudes to divorce, contraception, abortion and homosexuality.
The election of liberal lawyer Mary Robinson as President in 1990, the first woman to hold the post, was seen as a sign of more enlightened times by many people, an attitude reinforced by the election of Mary McAleese as her successor in 1998. A new political climate has favoured the quiet spread of feminism and challenged the old paternalism of Irish politics, not only in social issues but also in helping break down the clannish cronyism of the traditional parties Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.
LANGUAGE AND CULTURE
Ireland was a Gaelicspeaking nation until the 16th century, since when the language has declined.
Today, however, the Republic is officially bilingual. Knowledge of Irish is a requirement for university entrance and a career in the public sector, although only 11 per cent of the population speaks Gaelic fluently.
Irish culture, on the other hand, is in no danger of being eroded. The people have a genuine love of old folk legends and epic poetry and songs. Festivals, whether dedicated to St Patrick or James Joyce, pubs or oysters, salmon or sailing, are an important part of community life.
Music is a national passion – from the rock of U2 and the Cranberries to the folk music of Clannad, the Chieftains and Mary Black.
Another national passion is horse racing. Ireland’s breeders and trainers are masters of their trade and enjoy astonishing international success for such a small country. Other sports are followed with equal intensity, as witnessed during the 1994 football World Cup.
Drinking also plays an important part in Irish culture: social life centres on the pub and the “crack” (convivial chat) to be enjoyed there. With smoking now banned in pubs in the Republic, many wonder whether pubs and the life surrounding them will collapse. Given the attachment to Guinness, gossip and music, this is extremely unlikely.