Society of Ireland

Economic history of Ireland

The state described today as the Republic of Ireland seceded from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1922. The state was plagued by poverty and emigration until the 1980s. The 1990s saw the beginning of unprecedented economic success, in a phenomenon known as the "Celtic Tiger", which ended with the onset of a severe recession, the 2008–2011 Irish financial crisis

Effects of revolution and partition

After the War of Independence, 26 counties of Ireland gained independence from the United Kingdom as a dominion called the Irish Free State – but the 6 north-eastern counties remained in the UK as Northern Ireland. In 1937 the Irish Free State was re-established under its current name, Ireland. There had already been a significant economic divide between the northeast 6 counties and the rest of Ireland, but following partition both regions further diverged. In the short term, this was accentuated by the nationalist policy of boycotting northern goods in response to attacks on Catholics and nationalists in Northern Ireland.[1] Partition had a devastating effect on what became Ireland's border area. County Donegal, for example, was economically separated from its natural regional economic centre of Derry. The rail network struggled to operate across two economic areas, finally closing across a vast swath of Ireland's border area (the only cross-border route today is between Belfast and Dublin).[2] However, overall it has been judged that, "the economic effects of partition were probably slight, certainly less significant than other economic forces, both national and international".[3] The Free State had the advantage, not possessed by Northern Ireland, of fiscal independence but the violence and disruption of the years 1919-1923 had caused a great deal of economic damage. As a result of the Civil War of 1922-23, the Free State started out with a very serious budget deficit, which was not fully cleared until 1931.[4]


The establishment of the Irish Free State gave rise to the first serious attempt since the 1890s to industrialise the south of Ireland, but always with scant resources. Farming became orientated around pasture rather than tillage, with the increased processing of products and the export business. The country was gradually electrified and new state-owned factories were encouraged, such as the Irish Sugar Company in Carlow. During the late 1930s the Fianna Fail government began a disastrous dispute with Britain over the payment of land annuities, called The Economic War. The Irish state refused to continue paying land annuities, Britain put tariffs on Irish beef, and the Free State retaliated by imposing tariffs on British consumer goods; this "economic war" was resolved in 1938. From 1932 Eamon de Valera abandoned free trade, pursued a protectionist policy and sought self-sufficiency, but the country was not wealthy enough to make this a success. This led to the state taking control of private interests in the name of the public interest - nationalisation and monopoly creation similar to that in vogue at the time in many countries. Many of the industries which were brought under government control at the time remain under 'semi-state' control today - others were sold in the 1980s and 1990s whilst others simply were downsized or closed when the economic reality became apparent.


In the 1960s the economy greatly expanded, under the leadership of Sean Lemass, many rehousing schemes (including Ballymun) were started to clear the Dublin tenements; the Industrial Development Authority refocused on high technology and foreign direct investment was encouraged. Education was also reformed to a large extent, the state built a RTC system and later two NIHE institutions; both systems greatly expanded education, in particular technical education, university education was also reformed and expanded. Entry into the European Economic Community (forerunner to the European Union) in 1973 also added to Ireland's economic prospects; 90% of Ireland's exports went to Britain. Professor Garvin[who?] has found that Lemass suggested and enabled protectionism from 1932, and then was unduly credited when he chose to revert to a free trade policy after 1960.[5] The 1968 Buchanan Report was a significant report on the regional dimension to economic planning which had largely been ignored. The report, prepared by Colin Buchanan and Partners, investigated and recommended on the social and economic sustainability of industry in the regions. The reports recommended a limited number of development centres throughout Ireland, which would have a minimum self-sustaining size. This became quite controversial as there were fewer than a dozen of such places recommended. In the end local politics and patronage won out and the report was largely dropped with industry being ineffectively dispersed as local need arose.


There were a series of three major Irish bank strikes between 1966 and 1976 in all totalling about a year affecting most of the retail banking sector. Surprisingly these had very little effect on the growth of the economy. However the boom did not last for long. Industrial relations disputes, inflation from the oil crises of 1973 and 1979, overspill from the Troubles in Northern Ireland, new capital taxes and poor management of the economy by the government took their toll in the 1970s. By the 1980s Ireland was referred to as the 'sick man of Europe' [1][dead link] and was far behind its European rivals - frequent changes in government compounded the situation. The government, often led by the now disgraced Charles Haughey, presided over a decade of high emigration, unemployment (about 18% for much of the decade) and economic mismanagement. At one point the International Monetary Fund considered imposing strict economic measures.


The 1980s in the Republic of Ireland was one of the state's bleakest times. An extremely irresponsible budget by the majority Fianna Fail government in 1977, which included abolition of car tax and borrowing to fund current spending, combined with some global economic problems to ruin the Irish economy for most of the 1980s, causing high unemployment and mass emigration. The Charles Haughey and Garret FitzGerald governments made this bad situation much worse with more massive borrowing and tax rates as high as 60% (with one Fine Gael finance minister suggesting people were not being taxed enough). After joining the ERM in 1979, Ireland was also saddled for much of the 1980s with an overvalued currency, which wasn't rectified until the 1986 devaluation. Much of the capital borrowed in the 1980s went towards propping up this overvalued currency. Foreign investment, in the form of risk capital, was discouraged by all the evident difficulties. This was also an era of political instability and extreme political corruption, with power alternating between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, with some governments not even lasting a year, and in one case, three elections in eighteen months. The problems were eventually dealt with starting in 1987 under a minority Fianna Fail government but with help from the opposition led by Alan Dukes of Fine Gael under what was known as the "Tallaght Strategy", with economic reform, tax cuts, welfare reform, more competition and a reduction in borrowing to fund current spending. This policy was largely continued by succeeding governments. Considerable support from the European Union was the only positive aspect.

The "Celtic Tiger" (1990s-2007)

In the 1990s, the Republic's economy began the 'Celtic Tiger' phase. High FDI rate, a low corporate tax rate, better economic management and a new 'social partnership' approach to industrial relations together transformed the Irish economy. The European Union had contributed over ˆ10 billion into infrastructure. By 2000 the Republic had become one of the world's wealthiest nations, unemployment was at 4% and income tax was almost half 1980s levels. During this time, the Irish economy grew by five to six percent annually, dramatically raising Irish monetary incomes to equal and eventually surpass those of many states in the rest of Western Europe. Over the past decade, the Irish government has implemented a series of national economic programmes designed to curb inflation, ease tax burdens, reduce government spending as a percentage of GDP, increase labour force skills, and reward foreign investment. The Republic joined in launching the euro currency system in January 1999 along with eleven other European Union nations. The economy felt the impact of the global post-Dot Com economic slowdown in 2001, particularly in the high-tech export sector – the growth rate in that area was cut by nearly half. GDP growth continued to be relatively robust, with a rate wc of about 6% in 2001 and 2002 – but this was expected to fall to around 2% in 2003.

The 2008 economic crisis

There was an almost threefold decrease of GDP in 2001 from the previous year. After a near stagnant year in 2002, economic growth started to pick up once again in 2003.[6] By 2005, growth rates had increased to around 5%. During 2007, Ireland's economic progress was however again affected by a wider global economic slow-down, with the construction sector being particularly affected. During the Summer of 2007, Irish residential property prices fell by over 2% and subsequently continued to fall by approximately 1% per month, leaving property prices down 9% by February 2008. This has impacted consumer spending and investment confidence across the Irish economy generally. In July 2008, a predicted ˆ3bn shortfall in 2008 annual government revenues[7] led to the announcement of 440m reduction in Government spending.[8] In September, due to continuing revenue shortfalls, the 2009 budget was advanced six weeks to October 2008[9] and Government statistics showed that the Irish economy, with quarterly GDP falls of 0.3% and 0.5%, had entered a recession at the start of 2008, for the first time since 1983,[10] becoming the first of the Eurozone economies to officially do so during the global Economic crisis of 2008.[11] On budget day, Finance Minister Brian Lenihan stated that the General Government deficit would be 7% of GDP in 2008, and would be kept to 6.5% (or ˆ12bn) in 2009[12] in contrast to a Government surplus of ˆ5.2bn in 2006.[13]

IMF/EU assistance

In April 2010, following a marked increase in Irish 2-year bond yields, Ireland's NTMA state debt agency said that it had "no major refinancing obligations" in 2010. Its requirement for ˆ20 billion in 2010 was matched by a ˆ23 billion cash balance, and it remarked: "We're very comfortably circumstanced".[14] On 18 May the NTMA tested the market and sold a ˆ1.5 billion issue that was three times oversubscribed.[15] By September 2010 the banks could not raise finance and the bank guarantee was renewed for a third year. This had a negative impact on Irish government bonds, government help for the banks rose to 32% of GDP, and so the government started negotiations with the ECB and the IMF. On the evening of 21 November 2010, the then Taoiseach Brian Cowen confirmed that Ireland had formally requested financial support from the European Union's European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF),[16] a request which was welcomed by the European Central Bank and EU finance ministers.[17] The request was approved in principle by the finance ministers of the eurozone countries in a telephone conference call.[18] Details of the financial arrangement were not immediately agreed upon, and remained to be determined in the following weeks,[19] though the loan was believed to be in the region of ˆ100 billion, of which approximately ˆ8 billion was expected to be provided by the United Kingdom.[17] On 28 November, the European Union, International Monetary Fund and the Irish state agreed to a ˆ85 billion rescue deal made up of ˆ22.5 billion from the European Financial Stability Mechanism (EFSM), ˆ22.5 billion from the IMF, ˆ22.5 billion from the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), ˆ17.5 billion from the Irish sovereign National Pension Reserve Fund (NPRF) and bilateral loans from the United Kingdom, Denmark and Sweden.[20]



ESHSI, Department of Modern History, Trinity College, Dublin, Republic of Ireland Contact: Membership Secretary