Ireland's head of state, the president (currently Mary McAleese), is a largely ceremonial figure. Real power is held by the prime minister, in Irish the Taoiseach (pronounced teesoch), currently Brian Cowen.
The Irish parliament consists of two elected houses, the Dáil (pronounced doyle), which has 166 members, known as TDs, elected by proportional representation, and the Seanad, made up of 60 senators, 11 nominated by the prime minister and the rest elected by "nominating bodies" to seats that are reserved for groups such as university graduates; agriculture; industry; business; and civil servants and public administrators. The senate's role is largely advisory.
Founded in 1926 by Eamon de Valera (1882-1975), who was born in New York to an Irish mother and a Cuban father. De Valera was, along with Michael Collins, one of the main figures in the Irish struggle for independence from Britain in the period 1916-1921.
He later split with Collins over the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921 that saw the birth of an independent Ireland, minus the six counties that make up the modern Northern Ireland, still part of the UK, with de Valera opposing the signing of the treaty.
Fianna Fáil, whose name is translated into English variously as “Soldiers of Destiny”, first came to power in 1932, with De Valera as prime minister, and has been in power for all but 19 of the subsequent 78 years, most recently in a coalition with the Green Party and the Progressive Democrats.
The party's politics are normally categorised as conservative, although in the European Parliament it is allied with liberal parties such as the FDP in Germany and the Liberal Democrats in the UK.
Founded in 1933 as a merger between Cumann na nGaedheal, the pro-Treaty party formed 10 years earlier towards the end of the civil war that followed the signing of the treaty, and several small right-wing parties. It is regarded as further to the right than Fianna Fáil, and is allied in the European Parliament with Christian democrat parties such as Germany's CDU, led by Angela Merkel, and Nicholas Sarkozy's UMP in France. The party's name is usually translated into English as "tribe of the Irish". It has held power in Ireland for 19 out of the past 52 years, but only ever in a coalition, usually with the Irish Labour Party. Like Fianna Fáil, it can trace its origins to people who were in the original Sinn Féin movement.
Founded in 1912 as the political wing of the Irish Trades Union Congress. Its share of the vote in post-independence elections has varied from 6.6 per cent to 19.5 per cent, and the party has participated in six different coalition governments, five times with Fine Gael and one with Fianna Fáil. At the last general election in 2007 it gained just 10 per cent of the vote. However, a poll by The Irish Times in June this year showed the Labour Party with the highest rating of any Irish political party, at 32 per cent, with Fine Gael on 28 per cent and Fianna Fáil, currently the ruling partner in a coalition government, at 17 per cent. At the same time the current leader of the Labour Party, Eamon Gilmore, has the highest approval ratings of any party leader, at 46 per cent.
Founded as the Ecology Party of Ireland in 1981, becoming the Green Party in 1987. Won its first seat in parliament in 1989. in the general election of 2007 it won six seats, and entered a coalition government with Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats (a minority party formed in 1987 and dissolved in 2009).
Founded in 1905 to fight for Irish independence from the United Kingdom. Suffered badly from splits between those members of the party who approved the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, and again in 1970 over policy in Northern Ireland. Refused to participate in the Irish parliament until 1986. Strong, if officially non-existent, links with the IRA, which is regarded in the UK and Ireland as a terrorist organisation. Currently has four members in the Irish parliament. Its name means "ourselves".