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How to cite:
Abbott King, A.; Nedovic-Budic, Z.; Williams, B. (2021): Country Profile of Ireland. Hannover. = ARL Country Profiles. https://www.arl-international.com/knowledge/country-profiles/ireland/rev/3741. (date of access).


Geography: location (in Europe), bordering countries and waters

The Republic of Ireland (herein referred to as Ireland) is a western European country located on the island of Ireland (Appendix Geographical location of the island of Ireland). The island of Ireland, the adjacent larger island of Britain and several smaller islands form an archipelago located in the Atlantic Ocean in the north west of Europe. The island of Ireland has a surface area of 84,421 km²; the Republic of Ireland itself is 70,273 km² or 83% of the island. The residual 17% comprises the land area of Northern Ireland, a constitutive unit of the United Kingdom (UK), also referred to as Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which shares its only land border with the Republic. The Irish Sea separates Ireland from Great Britain. The island of Ireland consists of four historical provinces that include Connacht, Leinster, Munster and Ulster, with the larger part of Ulster forming Northern Ireland (Appendix Geographical location of the island of Ireland). Dublin is the capital of Ireland; Belfast is the capital of Northern Ireland. The Dublin-Belfast corridor is the largest economic agglomeration on the island of Ireland and crosses both jurisdictions.

Social: ethnic groups, language spoken

Historically there are two traditions on the island of Ireland. These traditions are today broadly defined as ‘nationalist’ and ‘unionist’ as related to the historical settlement pattern of population broadly associated with Catholics and Protestants, as well as early and British settlers, respectively. Contemporary Ireland is both economically and socially liberal. It is attractive to highly skilled and educated immigrants, who can find employment in the multi-national and domestic economy. The ethnic composition of the Irish population has been transformed since the 1990s, comprising a cross section of international immigrants who were born abroad, but have settled in Ireland. As of the most recent census (Central Statistics Office, CSO, 2016), the population of Ireland was 4.726 million, with a large majority of the population being white Irish. There were 535,475 non-Irish nationals living in Ireland, most significantly represented by people of Polish (122,515 or 2.6%), UK (103,113 or 2.2%) and Lithuanian (36,552 or 0.8%) origin. The number of individuals with dual nationality (Irish and other) increased by 87.4% between 2006 and 2016 to reach an aggregate of 104,784 people. The ‘Global Financial Crisis’ of 2008–2009 truncated net immigration flows after the strong inward migration during the economic boom years of the 1990s and early 2000s, when exceptional Irish economic progress was known as the ‘Celtic Tiger.’ However, a stronger inward migration resumed from 2016. 

Irish (Gaelic) has constitutional status as the national and first official language of the state (Bunreacht na hÉireann [Constitution of Ireland], Article 8). Irish is among the official languages of the European Union. While the census reports 39.8% of the nation could speak Irish, the language is functionally used on a daily basis by only 73,803 people or 1.6% of the population (CSO 2016). English has been the first language of the majority of the population from the early nineteenth century and is the second official language of the state, as well as the language spoken in the majority of educational institutions at all levels. The arrival of a large and diverse international born diaspora has broadened the linguistic pool.

Political, legal and governance: form of government, EU policy status

Political and legal system and government
Ireland is a sovereign, independent and democratic state (The Constitution of the Irish State / Bunreacht na hÉireann, Article 5, Government of Ireland, 1937 / 2021). Politically it is organised as a parliamentary republic. It is a representative democracy with a written constitution and a common law system. The Irish Constitution, Bunreacht na hEireann, was written in 1937. The Constitution provides for the government of the state comprising separate executive, legislative and judicial branches following the American model. The legislative branch of government consists of the Oireachtas, consisting of a president and a bicameral parliament (houses of the Oireachtas) comprising a Senate (Seanad Éireann) and a directly elected (by universal suffrage) House of Representatives (Dáil Éireann) (Bunreacht na hÉireann, Article 15). The name of the state is Éire or Ireland in English (Bunreacht na hÉireann, Article 4).

EU policy status
Ireland has pooled its sovereignty with the 27 other member states of the European Union (EU). Ireland joined the European Economic Community (EEC), the predecessor of the EU, in January 1973, at the same time as the United Kingdom and Denmark. Ireland is a full member of the EU and Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), launched in 1992. Ireland was a net recipient of European structural and regional development funds from the 1970s until becoming a net contributor in 2014/2015 (Williams/Nedovic-Budic 2020).

Socio-economic situation

Ireland is a free market economy, fully integrated into the global economy. It is a multi-cultural and affluent contemporary state. In recent years, Ireland has experienced rapid population growth both in absolute terms and relative to other countries. In the 20-year period between 1996-2016, the population of Ireland grew by 1.3% per annum compared with the EU28 average of 0.3% per annum (Bergin/Rodriguez 2020). In 2020, the population of the Republic of Ireland was estimated at 4.98 million (CSO 2020).

Ireland is joint 2nd (with Switzerland) behind Norway out of 189 countries measured according to longevity, education and income in the UN Human Development Report 2020 (UNDP 2020). Ireland’s overall UN Human Development score has increased from 17th place in 1990 to 2nd place in 2020. The primary driver of the increase in the Irish development ranking is education.

Having previously been a mostly agricultural society, in the late 1950s, Ireland adopted an open economic model which sought to innovate through the importation of expertise and capital via foreign direct investment (FDI). The Industrial Development Authority (IDA) has been highly successful at attracting multinationals to Ireland over decades, leveraging low corporation tax (12.5%) and a skilled work force. Initially attracting low value manufacturing, Ireland moved up the value chain while investing in education. Along with the European regional funds, the IDA was the main instrument to achieve balanced regional development in the 1970s and early 1980s (James Walsh 2007). Today, the IDA inward investment strategy (2015–2019) is focused on attracting investors in advanced manufacturing or office-based activities, which are involved in high value added activities, e.g. ICT, knowledge-based industries and biotechnology (IDA 2020). In 2020, the number of employees directly employed by multinationals in Ireland was at an all-time high of 257,394 people or over 10% of all employment.

The capital city of Dublin is a global gateway and the location of a significant cluster of fintech and social media multinationals who have their European headquarters or at least a significant presence in the city. They include: Airbnb, Amazon, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft and Twitter. Dublin is a primate city within the state. However, historically, it enjoyed a binary relationship with Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, as one of the two most populous urban centres on the island of Ireland. The Dublin Metropolitan Area (DMA) has a population of 1.4 million (EMRA 2019), about 30% of the state’s population. The Eastern and Midland Regional Assembly area (EMRA), which includes the DMA, supports 1 million jobs (EMRA 2019), about half of all jobs in Ireland. Dublin City and County have the highest average disposal income per person at EUR 23,864, which is 15.2% higher than the state average of EUR 20,714 (CSO 2017).

In Ireland, the population density is 70 people per square kilometre (CSO 2016). The percentage of people living in rural areas in Ireland is 31.4%, which is above the EU average of 27.3% (CSO 2019). Ireland, in common with international trends, has witnessed an increase in congestion and experienced infrastructural deficits in tandem with economic growth. There is a well-documented shortage of housing, specifically social and affordable housing to buy and to rent in the larger urban areas. The number of house completions of 20,676 new residential units (CSO 2020) is projected against a 20-year average requirement to 2040 of 28,000–33,000 new units per year (Bergin/Garcia-Rodriguez 2020). 

Housing during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ period was increasingly neo-liberalised with owner occupation being seen as the only secure form of tenure (Hearne et al. 2014). The reliance on the market to deliver housing, including social housing, intensified during the 2008–2014 period subsequent to the global financial crisis and resultant property crash in Ireland. The housing shortage is reflected in high rents, unaffordable purchase prices – in particular in urban areas – and restricted access to mortgage finance. It is also evident in an increase in household size in 2016, for the first time since 1966, from 2.73 persons (CSO 2011) to 2.75 persons per dwelling (CSO 2016). The lack of housing options results in unsustainable commuting patterns (NPF 2018). The established trend is urban workers, in particular in Dublin and the regional cities, pushed into the broad metropolitan hinterland to find affordability, tenure security and more spacious homes. Census 2016 reports 42% of all dwellings as detached houses, 45% as semi-detached/terraced houses, and the remaining 13% as flats/apartments or other. The per person average living space is estimated at 36.5m², but varies depending on the year built, the location of the housing, internal migration patterns and other factors (urban vs rural, central vs peripheral, Dublin vs other).

General information

Name of country Ireland
Capital, population of the capital (2020) Dublin, 1,408,815 (Eurostat)
Surface area 70,280 km² (World Bank)
Total population (2020) 4,985,382 (World Bank)
Population growth rate (2010-2020) 9.32% (World Bank)
Population density (2020) 72.4 inhabitants/km² (World Bank)
Degree of urbanisation (2015) 29.03% densely populated areas (European Commission)
Human development index (2021) 0.945 (Human Development Reports)
GDP (2019) EUR 305,787 million (World Bank)
GDP per capita (2019) EUR 61,971 (World Bank)
GDP growth (2014-2019) 58.25% (World Bank)
Unemployment rate (2019) 4.95% (World Bank)
Land use (2018) 2.46% built-up land
66.68% agricultural land
10.29% forests and shrubland
3.8% nature
16.77% inland waters
(European Environment Agency)
Sectoral structure (2017) 60.2% services and administration
38.6% industry and construction
1.2% agriculture and forestry
(Central Intelligence Agency)

*Dublin metropolitan area (Eastern and Midland Regional Assembly) 
** Current market prices (CSO Feb 2020)
***Modified Gross National Income (GNI*) is an indicator which is designed to exclude globalisation effects that are disproportionately impacting the measurement of the size of the Irish economy (CSO Feb 2020).

To ensure comparability between all Country Profiles, the tables were prepared by the ARL.

Administrative structure and system of governance

After 121 years within the United Kingdom, Ireland achieved independence in 1922, following the negotiation of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Following independence there was continuity in the operation of the administrative system and the common law legal system. The administrative structure in Ireland is divided between national and sub-national government and state agencies (see Figure: Administrative structure of Ireland). The structure of sub-national government was established by the Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898 and, most recently, consolidated by the Local Government Reform Act in 2014. Ireland is a unitary state. Decision making and budgetary control is highly centralised. In practice, the central government asserts administrative oversight and control over local government (Ward 1994). The sub-national level of governance is known as local government, which principally comprises local authorities (31) and regional assemblies (3) (Appendix Counties of Ireland). 

The local authorities collectively comprise county, city, and city & county councils. There are three regional assemblies, which cover the territory of the state. Also, there are a multiplicity of state agencies with specialist remits that make a significant contribution to public administration, operating in parallel with the central and local government hierarchy.

Figure 1: Administrative structure of Ireland

Figure 1: Administrative structure of Ireland

Central government

The business of the state is discharged through ministerial departments (Bunreacht na hÉireann, Article 28 (12)). There are 18 government departments (2021, see here) responsible for public administration in areas as diverse as finance, education, health, justice, foreign affairs, enterprise, social protection, tourism and children. The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage (DHLGH) is the relevant state department for the built environment including the preparation of planning legislation and the transposition of EU environmental legislation and other relevant directives. The department formulates and disseminates national planning policy. It is the central directional and coordinating entity for all local authorities, regional assemblies and state agencies under its remit.

State agencies

In Ireland, non-commercial state agencies discharge a significant role in public administration and are an integral part of the Irish administrative system (MacCarthaigh 2010). These bodies are formed outside the core governing structure to enable the state to extend its capacity and respond in a flexible manner to social, political, economic or environmental pressures. This introduction of state agencies is an international phenomenon that has become embedded in the Irish administrative structure. The acceleration of the establishment of state agencies began in the 1990s. This can be attributed to a number of reasons, including EU membership requirements, public sector reforms, social partnership commitments and the expedient of political responsiveness. An example of a state agency with a specialist remit is An Bord Pleanála (Planning Board), which is the national planning review board. The absolute number of state agencies was reduced marginally after the 2008 financial crisis and period of austerity. However, the sector is resilient, evidencing new creations over the last decade, including the establishment of the Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR) in 2019 (See Part II-B for more details).

Sub-national level

Regional assemblies
The regional tier in Ireland sits in the middle of the administrative hierarchy. Ireland has three regional assemblies: Eastern and Midland Regional Assembly (EMRA), Northern and Western Regional Assembly (NWRA) and the Southern Regional Assembly (SRA). Regional authorities and their planning function came late to Ireland (Grist 2012). In part, this was to satisfy the EU partnership criteria in relation to the structural fund, which required regionalisation (Walsh 2007). Previously the state was considered as one region for the purposes of the European Regional Development Fund.

In 1994, eight regional planning authorities were established for the purpose of promoting and coordinating public services in different areas of the state and in facilitating EU funding. In 2015, the regional tier was streamlined into the present three regional assemblies. They comprise a membership of public representatives selected from the constituent city and county and city & county councillors, as regional assemblies are not directly elected. The regional assemblies source European funding for regional programmes. They promote and support strategic and sustainable regional development through their statutory spatial planning powers in the preparation of regional spatial and economic strategies (RSESs). In this regard, they have a small executive, including technical planning expertise that is headed by a chief executive officer.

Local authorities 
The local authorities are the ‘primary units of local government’ and represent sub-national administration in Ireland. Irish local government has been the subject of substantial reform at local, regional and national level in the last decade (Shannon 2016). The Local Government Reform Act in 2014 streamlined and consolidated local government to make it more user-focused and cost-effective (Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, DECLG, 2012). It took effect from the 1 June 2014 when the number of local authorities were significantly reduced from 114 to 31. The abolition of the majority of local authorities was achieved by central government in the context of a comprehensive programme of austerity, arising from the impacts of the global financial crisis and the domestic property crash, which significantly reduced the funding to local government. In tandem, the eight regional authorities and two regional assemblies were consolidated into three regional assemblies. The local authorities were rationalised into 26 county councils, three city councils (Dublin, Cork and Galway) and two city & county councils (Limerick and Waterford), moving to a single tier of local government. The reform removed the municipal tier of governance below the county level, dissolving 80 town councils. The reforms also resulted in the establishment of 95 municipal districts as a subdivision of the counties and the city & counties. 

Municipal districts
In 2014, 95 municipal districts were established. All local authority areas are divided into municipal districts with the exception of the three city local authorities. Councillors simultaneously represent the municipal district and the local authority. The councillors at municipal district level act as a decision-making sub-formation of the overall council in respect of their municipal district area.

Organs, functions and tasks of the levels of governance

The Irish political system is based on a republican model of popular sovereignty with a written constitution. The Constitution of the Irish State, Bunreacht na hÉireann, has been in operation since 29 December 1937 (Government of Ireland, 1937 / 2021). In addition to the constitution, the formal laws passed by the legislature, other legal rules as well as other non-legal rules and conventions form the whole system of government or constitutional structure (Chubb 1982). The constitution states that the powers of government are ‘legislative, executive and judicial’ and that they derive under God from the people (Bunreacht na hÉireann, Article 6) (see Figure: System of Powers of Ireland). These powers of government are exercisable only by or on the authority of the organs of state established by the constitution.

The Legislature
The President and the two houses of the Oireachtas (herein referred to as the Houses of Parliament) comprise the legislature (Bunreacht na hÉireann, Article 15). The constitution provides for the position of the President of Ireland (Uachtaran na hÉireann) who shall take precedence over all other persons in the state and shall be directly elected by the people (Bunreacht na hÉireann, Article 12). The Houses of Parliament comprise a bicameral legislature including a House of Representatives (Dáil Éireann) – the lower house – and the Senate (Seanad Éireann) – the upper house. The lower house (Dail Éireann) is elected by the vote of all Irish citizens (or British citizens who live in Ireland) over 18 years of age (Bunreacht na hÉireann, Article 16 as amended). The constitution provides that the system of voting for the lower house is a system of proportional representation (PR voting system) comprising a single transferable vote in multi-party constituencies (Bunreacht na hÉireann, Article 16(2)). The proposed change in the voting system to substitute a simple majority system within single seat constituencies (first-past-the-post) was defeated in referenda in 1959 and in 1968. The lower and upper houses of parliament may form committees for particular purposes. In practice, much of the work of the Irish parliament is done in committees. 

The constitution states that the sole and exclusive power to make laws in the state is vested in the national parliament (the Oireachtas). However, it would be misleading to envisage parliament as making laws in the literal sense; rather, parliament has the authority to declare law and to legitimise it (Chubb 1982). The initiative to originate and formulate legislation lies with the cabinet government.

The executive powers at the national level and the role of cabinet government
Ireland operates the model of ‘responsible government’, which was first developed in the United Kingdom and is known as ‘parliamentary government’ (Ward 1994). In the responsible government model, power is highly concentrated in the hands of the prime minister and cabinet. In Ireland, the term ‘cabinet’ is frequently used to describe the group of senior ministers who lead the government, although the constitution uses the word ‘government’. Its central characteristic is an executive drawn from members of the legislature. The constitution provides that the cabinet government (7 to 15 ministers) is formed from the members of the houses of parliament nominated by the lower house (Dáil Éireann) and appointed by the president (Bunreacht na hÉireann, Article 13, Article 28). The cabinet members of government retain their seats in the houses of parliament, principally in the lower house (Dáil Éireann) and in the Senate (Seanad Éireann, two maximum). 

In practice, the executive power is exercised by the cabinet government comprising a committee of appointed senior ministers led by a strong prime minister (Taoiseach) and supported by the majority government party/parties in the lower house (Dáil Éireann). In a bicameral legislature such as Ireland, one of the houses of the legislature must have primacy over the other as the government can only be responsible to one majority. The cabinet government is responsible to the lower house (Dáil Éireann) (Bunreacht na hÉireann, Article 28(4)). The cabinet is collectively responsible for overall government policy. The prime minister and the cabinet government dominate the parliamentary agenda, the budgetary process and legislation, as such power is highly concentrated (Ward 1994). 

The executive powers at the local level
In 1898, a democratically elected body was established in each of the administrative counties (counties and cities), which managed the financial and administrative business of the county (Grist 2012). The local authority membership comprises elected representatives or councillors who are elected every five years (Bunreacht na hÉireann, Article 28 A). There are 949 councillors elected to 31 local authorities and councils with membership ranging from 18 to 63 councillors (Local Government and Management Association, LGMA, 2020). The elected council is the policy making forum of the local authority. In this regard local authorities are required to establish strategic policy committees that are chaired by an elected member and comprise both councillors and representatives of sectoral and committee interests. The financing of local authority administration and services is a combination of central government grants and local commercial rates and residential property tax linked to property market valuations.

One of the significant innovations in Irish governance after independence was the introduction of a management system working in parallel with the elected representatives, resulting in a division of competence between executive and reserved functions, respectively (County Management Act, 1940). The executive function of the local authority is exercised by an experienced administrative manager who is independently appointed and acts in a role similar to a chief executive of a company. The reserved function is exercised by the elected representatives. For example, it is a reserved function of a local authority to make a statutory development plan or local area plan and it is an executive function to adjudicate on planning applications for the development of land where the application would not materially contravene the adopted development or local area plan. 

The 31 local authorities provide a wide range of local services including: roads; planning; housing; economic and community development; environment, recreation and amenity services. The 2014 local government reforms expanded the role of local authorities in economic development. This closer alignment requires the preparation of Local Economic and Community Plans (LECPs) (Shannon 2016).

The judiciary and the role of the courts
The constitution together with an independent judiciary comprise an essential combination of institutions for the safety and well-being of a liberal democratic state (Chubb 1982). In this regard independent courts are established where justice is administered by judges appointed in a manner provided for by the constitution (Bunreacht na hÉireann, Article 34). The judiciary comprises courts of first instance and a court of final appeal. The system of courts of first instance include the High Court, Circuit Court and the District Court (The Courts of Justice Act, 1924). The Circuit Court and the District Court are of local and limited jurisdiction. The jurisdiction of the High Court extends to the question of the validity of any law regarding the provisions of the constitution (Bunreacht na hÉireann, Article 34(3)). Furthermore, the courts do not see the constitution as static, but rather as a contemporary, fundamental law (Ward,1994). The constitution sets out fundamental rights (Bunreacht na hÉireann, Articles 40 to 44). These articles have been interpreted by the courts to protect rights not explicitly referred to in the constitution. The court of final appeal is the Supreme Court, which has appellate jurisdiction over decisions of the High Court both in constitutional and other matters. 

The Irish courts operate within a common law legal system. The judges of all of the courts provided for under the constitution are appointed by the president. The judiciary is independent in the exercise of their judicial functions and is subject only to the constitution and the law (Bunreacht na hÉireann, Article 35). The High Court is the court of review in the instance of the planning process. An application can be made to the High Court for a judicial review of the decision of the territorial planning authorities and An Bord Pleanála (Planning Board). The court will review the process (the manner in which a decision has been made) rather than the planning merits of the subject case, which is the jurisdiction of the planning authorities. 

Figure 2: Planning system of Ireland

Figure 2: Planning system of Ireland

Spatial planning system

The Irish planning system must be viewed in the socio-economic context through a prism of significant sustained economic and population growth within an open and globalised market economy. It is a regulatory system where the development of land requires planning permission and development is principally developer-led. It operates at national, regional and local level, using statutory and non-statutory plans and implementation tools, while applying vertical and horizontal coordination mechanisms (see Figure: Planning system and development approval process in Ireland; see Figure: Planning System of Ireland). The Irish planning system is in continuous evolution and as such it is a dynamic system, which is open to innovation and flexibility (Appendix Factors and influences on the Irish planning system 1960-present). The introduction of the Planning and Development Act 2000 on the regional tier in the spatial planning hierarchy and its refinement in 2014, made operational in 2015, is an example of that innovation.

Figure 3: Planning system and development approval process in Ireland: a) after Williams and Varghese (2018); b) after the Government of Ireland NPF (2018) – below

Figure 3: Planning system and development approval process in Ireland: a) after Williams and Varghese (2018); b) after the Government of Ireland NPF (2018) – below 

Figure 4: Irish Planning System

Figure 4: Irish Planning System

Historical development of the planning system

The initial enthusiasm for town planning before the Second World War, when planning legislation based on the English town planning model was introduced in Ireland, did not materialise in tangible results. In the post-war period the first government programme for economic expansion (1959–63) set ambitious economic targets and physical planning was intended to play a role in promoting growth (O’Leary 2014). In the 1960’s, the renaissance of planning related directly to the perception that good planning and well-planned and attractive environments were a catalyst for economic and industrial expansion (Bannon 1985). The United Nation’s Programme of Technical Assistance played a significant role in the institutionalisation of formal spatial planning in Ireland at this time.  

The Local Government (Planning and Development) Act of 1963, which came into force on 1 October 1964, introduced a regulatory planning system. This new planning law established that the development of land and buildings required planning permission. The designated planning authorities were mandated to prepare statutory development plans (policy frameworks with zoning). The regulatory aspect of the legislation was balanced with pro-active provisions allowing local authorities to stimulate and instigate development through development agencies. Notwithstanding these pro-active provisions, the development control or regulatory function became dominant and the dual function of the legislation was not effectively implemented. 

Towards the end of 20th century, an urban regeneration model supported by the Urban Renewal Act 1986 and financial tax-based incentives played a central role in urban development in Ireland. In consequence, public and private investment was channelled into under-utilised land in urban cores rather than peripheral locations without strategic direction. However, critics of this ‘multiple mini-visions’ approach to development did not view the central government sponsored approach of fragmented planning as an alternative to wider, comprehensive planning strategies (Bartley 2007). 

Williams and Nedovic-Budic (2020) provide an overview of the Irish planning system from the mid-20th century, phasing its evolution into three periods: 1960s–1999, 2000–2015 and 2016 to the present (Appendix Factors and influences on the Irish planning system 1960-present).

Figure 5: System of powers of Ireland

Figure 5: System of powers of Ireland

Legal basis/constitutional framework (what planning rights exist, which entities hold such rights and how are they regulated and overseen)

The Planning and Development Act 2000 (and as amended)
The 2000 Planning and Development Act – ‘the Principal Act’ – represented a significant amending and consolidating of planning legislation (Grist 2012). The objective was to create a planning system for the twenty-first century that would be strategic and that would embed sustainable development (O’Leary, 2014). The legislation introduced a plan-led system that aims to ensure proper planning, strategic and sustainable development through a hierarchy of inter-related and complementary plans and guidelines at national, regional and local levels (Williams/Nedovic-Budic 2020). The ‘Principal Act’ has been amended several times and is complemented by ministerial guidance documents, principally issued under Section 28 of the Act, and regulations.

The ‘Principal Act’ introduced the concept of national spatial planning. The National Spatial Strategy (NSS) published in 2002 (Department of the Environment and Local Government, DELG, 2002), incorporated key European ideas and concepts of spatial planning into the Irish planning system (Walsh, 2007). The Act introduced the requirement for planning authorities to have regard to regional planning guidance in the preparation of their development plans (Planning and Development Act 2000, Section 27). However, the courts subsequently clarified the efficacy of the provision, which was not to be interpreted as rigid adherence, including for the purposes of the zoning of land in development plans (Grist 2012). 

In the context of the global financial crisis (2009), there was a banking and credit crisis in Ireland instigating a large-scale property crash (2006/7–2013/4). In the years before the crash, over-zoning – in particular the zoning of residential land – became a key feature of development plans (Grist 2012). In 1993, a total of 21,391 new residential units were built, growing steadily year on year to peak at 88,419 units in 2006; this provided a housing supply greater than demographic demand (Hearne et al. 2014). Consequent to the property crash and the legacy of over-zoning, there was significant modification of the ‘Principal Act’. In 2010 and subsequently, amendments to the Act increased the role of central government and reduced the role of local authorities and their elected members in planning matters, including restricting the discretion to zone development land.

The concept of ‘core strategies’ was introduced into the development plan in 2010. The core strategy provides an evidence base for zoning and requires the strategy to show consistency with national and regional strategies and population targets (Planning and Development (Amendment Act) 2010). In 2018, the ‘Principal Act’ was further amended to provide for the national planning framework (NPF). The amendment legislation provides for vertical coordination between the NPF and the regional spatial and economic strategies (RSESs) and county and city development plans (Planning and Development (Amendment) Act, 2018). The amendment also provided for the establishment of the Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR) to ensure, inter alia, consistency in the implementation of the plan hierarchy (P & D (Amendment) Act, 2018). In consequence, central administrative control has become a major feature of the local and regional policy frameworks in Ireland with vertical coordination fully enforced (Williams/Nedovic-Budic 2020).

Constitutional framework (property rights)
The ownership of private property is a right guaranteed by the Constitution (Bunreacht na Éireann). Article 43 of the Constitution establishes the right to the ownership of private property and protects the institution of property ownership, while Article 40(3) protects the citizen’s personal property. Article 43(2) recognises that social justice may require the delimitation of these rights, clarifying that private property ownership is not absolute. In practice, the legislature (Oireachtas) has a wide discretionary power to restrict property owners in the use of their private property and frequently exercises that discretion in the interests of the common good. In 1964, the introduction of the regulatory planning system placed significant limitations on the exercise of the rights of private property and subsequent legislation has broadened that limitation (see the Supplemental Information for more details on constitutional property rights).

Third party rights of observation and the right to appeal
A feature of the Irish planning system is the facilitation of third party rights both as part of the plan making process and the development management process. In development management, a third party, on making written observations and payment of a modest fee, has the right to appeal the decision of the planning authority by making an application to An Bord Pleanála (the Planning Board). The third party can be any citizen, public or private entity, company, as well as a non-profit interest or advocacy group. Being located within the proximity of the proposed development is not required for a third party to make a written observation or subsequently appeal a planning decision. 

Authorities responsible for spatial planning at each territorial level; their competencies, responsibilities and binding character

National level
The government and, more specifically, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage (DHLGH), are responsible for national planning policy and legislation. The department disseminates policy through mandatory and discretionary ministerial guidelines (Planning and Development Act 2000 (as amended), Section 28 and 29). The department is responsible for preparing the National Planning Framework (NPF) and monitoring its implementation (P&D 2000 (as amended), Section 20A). There is a comprehensive suite of guidance documents at national level to guide plan preparation and development management, e.g. Urban Development and Building Height Guidelines for Planning Authorities (DGLGH 2018) and Sustainable Urban Housing: Design Standards for New Apartments – Guidelines for Planning Authorities (DGLGH 2020). Furthermore, guidance may contain specific planning policy requirements (SPPRs) (Planning and Development (Amendment) Act, 2015, Section 2) with which planning authorities, regional assemblies and the An Bord Pleanála (Planning Board) must comply in the performance of their functions.

An Bord Pleanála (Planning Board)
The planning review board, An Bord Pleanála, was established in 1977 to determine appeals on planning applications, which had previously been determined by central government. An Bord Pleanála is a statutory body reporting to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage (P&D Act 2000 (as amended), Part VI). Since its establishment, the functions of An Bord Pleanála have been augmented incrementally, including jurisdiction in critical areas of the regulatory planning function and other matters. In 2007, the Strategic Infrastructure Development (SID) process was initiated as a division of An Bord Pleanála, which provides for the determination of strategic infrastructure development, including major roads and railway projects, by the board in the first instance (P&D (Strategic Infrastructure) Act, 2006, Section 19). In 2017, the procedure for all large residential planning applications (100 units or greater) was centralised in the Strategic Housing Development (SHD) process, albeit on a temporary basis (P & D (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Act, 2016) (see Supplemental Information for more details about SHD).

The Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR)
A key objective of the Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR) is to ensure policy consistency between the national, regional and local levels of the statutory planning hierarchy. The OPR (https://www.opr.ie/about/) has powers to investigate systemic issues in the planning process and to examine the operations and functions of planning authorities. The OPR also has an education, research and training function. The OPR conducts education and training programmes for members of planning authorities and regional assemblies in respect of their role under the Planning and Development Act 2000 (as amended) and for the staff of local government in relation to matters associated with proper planning and sustainable development. 

Regional level
The regional assemblies may prepare a regional spatial and economic strategy (RSES) for their regions (P&D Act 2000 (as amended), Section 21). RSESs have been prepared for the three regions: EMRA RSES 2019–2031 (https://emra.ie/final-rses/), NWRA RSES 2020–2032 (https://www.nwra.ie/rses/) and SRA RSES 2020–2032 (https://www.southernassembly.ie/regional-planning/rses).  The objective of the RSES is to support the implementation of the NPF (P&D Act 2000 (as amended), Section 23). The policies and objectives of the RSESs are binding on the lower order county and city development plans and any local area plan (P&D Act 2000 (as amended), Section 27). The review of Local Economic and Community Plans (LECPs) is required in order to align with the RSES. 

Local level
The local authorities – counties, cities and cities & counties, all of which are planning authorities – must prepare ‘land use plans’ that comprise a mandatory development plan for their functional area (county or city) and local area plans (LAPs), which are mandatory for settlements with populations over 5000. A local authority must prepare a development plan (policy framework with zoning) for its functional area and has discretion in the preparation of local area plans (LAPs) for settlements with a population of 5,000 or less. These plans are adopted by the elected members of the local authority after the completion of a statutory participative plan making process. The LAP must be consistent with the policies and objectives of the development plan. The local authority is mandated to prepare a development plan every six years (P&D 2000 (as amended), Section 9). (See Supplemental Information and Fact Sheets for detail.)

Municipal District level
The elected members in the Municipal District can make a decision in relation to adopting or revoking a local area plan (LAP). However, the preparation of an LAP at Municipal District level is not mandatory. 

The operation of the regulatory planning system 
The regulatory planning function comprises the development management process: adjudication on development proposals submitted by an applicant for planning permission either to a territorial planning authority or in the instance of strategic development to the An Bord Pléanala (Planning Review Board) (see Figure: Planning system and development approval process in Ireland). The planning authority assesses the development proposal subject to the relevant spatial planning considerations restricted to the proper planning and sustainable development of the area (Grist 2012). The relevant considerations, inter alia, include the policies and objectives of the statutory plan(s), the county level development plan and, where relevant, a local area plan (LAP), including land-use zoning.

In practice, there is broad discretion in the adjudication of development proposals by technical planning officers who make a recommendation for decision. The recommendation is based on a number of relevant planning considerations, including the provisions of the statutory plan(s) and ministerial guidance. The assessment will take into account internal technical reports from the specialist sections of the local authority, observations by prescribed entities, the submissions of consultancies acting on behalf of applicants and third parties and other third-party observations. The planning authority will make a decision within a defined timeframe to grant or refuse permission or, as is most common, to grant permission subject to conditions. The applicant or a third party can request a review of the decision of the planning authority and an assessment ‘de novo’ of the development proposal is conducted by An Bord Pleanála (the Planning Board). 

 Figure 6: The development management planning application process (source: the authors)

Figure 6: The development management planning application process (source: the authors)

The main spatial planning instruments at each territorial level and plan hierarchy

The National Planning Framework (NPF) is at the apex of the hierarchy of plans, which are primarily policy frameworks at national, regional, county and local area plan level (see Figure: The Irish planning system: the hierarchy of plans). The county and city and in general the local level plans are also land use plans and include zoning objectives. The strategies and plans are subject to the requirements of the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA), the Appropriate Assessment (AA) of habitats and the Strategic Flood Risk Assessment (SFRA) (P&D 2000 (as amended), Section 10(1)(D) and Section 19(4 & 5).

Figure 7: The Irish planning system: the hierarchy of plans

Figure 7: The Irish planning system: the hierarchy of plans (source: the authors)

The National Planning Framework (NPF)
The NPF (https://npf.ie) replaced the National Spatial Strategy (NSS) in 2018 (Fact Sheet 1). It is a statutory document published by central government and approved by the national parliament (P&D Act 2000 (as amended), Section 20C (8)). The NPF seeks to direct population and employment growth, targeting an additional 1 million people by 2040 into an urban compact growth pattern while prioritising balanced regional development (NPF 2018). In this regard, population and employment growth is prioritised in Dublin and the four regional cities in order for the cities to act as engines of growth for their regions. There is a mandatory requirement for planning authorities to implement the city 50:50 scenario, which seeks to achieve regional parity in the distribution of growth between the Eastern and Midland Regional Assembly (EMRA) area and the combined Southern Regional Assembly area and the Northern and Western Regional Assembly (NWRA) area.  

The NPF is binding on the lower order regional spatial and economic strategies (RSESs) and the local level land use plans, which must be consistent with the NPF (P&D Act 2000 (as amended), Section 23(1), Section 12(18) & Section 20(5)). The implementation of the NPF must be reviewed (review in 2021) and revised six years after publication (P&D Act 2000 (as amended), Section 20C (4–5)). The NPF is combined with the National Development Plan (NDP) (2018–2027) public investment programme, as part of a shared vision for Ireland called Project Ireland 2040 (Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, PER, 2019). Project Ireland is the long-term spatial expression of government policy.

Regional spatial and economic strategies (RSESs)
The RSES provides a long-term planning and economic framework for future regional development. It is a 12-year integrated spatial, economic and climate action strategy supported by an implementation and investment framework prepared by the members of the relevant regional assembly following detailed stakeholder and public engagement and the preparation of a draft plan (P&D Act 2000) as amended, Section 24, Section 25). The RSES targets population and employment growth within a regional settlement hierarchy guided by the NPF designation of five Irish cities and five regional growth centres as national engines of growth. In this regard, the RSESs contain a metropolitan area strategy plan (MASP) for each of the five cities (Implementation Roadmap for the National Planning Framework July 2018, Section 3b) (see practical example / Fact Sheet 2). The relevant regional assembly must review the strategy within six years and may revoke it and prepare a new strategy (P&D Act (as amended) Section 26) (see Fact Sheet 2).

Local level planning instruments: Statutory land-use plans
The planning instruments at local level are principally the statutory land-use plans comprising the mandatory county and city development plans and any local area plans (LAPs) mandatory for settlements with populations in excess of 5,000, which are discretionary below this population threshold. These plans are policy frameworks with zoning and in their simplest form are a written statement with a set of zoning maps. The policies and objectives of the development plan (Supplemental Information / Fact Sheet 3) and any LAP (Supplemental Information / Fact Sheet 4) must be consistent with the higher order national and regional strategies and with Section 28 Ministerial guidelines (P&D Act 2000 (as amended), Section 12(18) & Section 20(5)). The preparation of the development plan and any local area plan is the subject of a detailed statutory plan making process with defined stages (see Figure: The Irish planning system: the hierarchy of plans). The plan making process provides for a draft plan display period with an invitation for written submissions by stakeholders and the general public on any matter (Grist 2012).

The use of particular areas for particular purposes – whether residential, commercial, industrial, agricultural, recreational, as open space or otherwise, or as a mixture of those uses – is provided for by zoning objectives. In the case of the county and city development plan the zoning can provide for the whole functional area of the planning authority or for just part of it. A planning authority must provide a population growth projection and indicate zoning objectives for any town or village within its functional area where the population of the town is 1,500 or greater (P & D Act 2000 (as amended), Section 10(2)(a) &(f)(v)&(vi). The planning authority has the discretion to prepare a local area plan (Supplement / Fact Sheet 4) or to indicate such zoning objectives in the development plan for a town with a population between 1,500 and 5,000 (P & D Act 2000, Section 19(1)(bb)).

Figure 8: The process of making and approving a development plan

Figure 8: The process of making and approving a development plan (source: the authors)

Strategic Development Zones (SDZ)
The Planning and Development Act 2000 introduced the concept of Strategic Development Zones (SDZs) (P&D Act 2000 (as amended) Part IX). The SDZ prioritises plan-led development. It provides for ‘fast track’ development consent by the alignment of a development proposal with an agreed statutory planning scheme (comprehensive area-based urban design master plan) prepared in accordance with the dedicated legislation. SDZ designations may be initiated by local authorities or dedicated regeneration agencies. They are associated with both brownfield regeneration and large-scale greenfield development. The targeted area-based approach prioritises holistic plan-led development, which integrates physical, economic, social and environmental considerations in areas subject to development pressure (see the Supplemental Information for more details on SDZ).

Interdependence and mutual influences between different planning levels

There is a movement in Ireland toward more effective, active, integrated spatial planning. This is evident in the planning and institutional reforms introduced between 2015 and 2020. In tandem, there is a focus on implementation, including active land management and infrastructure support. The vacant site levy that encourages landowners with idle land to develop or sell it was introduced in 2017 (Urban Regeneration and Housing Act 2015). In 2018, the Land Development Agency (LDA) that will assemble strategic urban lands in public ownership and facilitate their redevelopment was established. Also in 2018, EUR 3 billion in central government funding was provided to support the compact growth objectives of the National Planning Framework (NPF) through the establishment of the Urban Regeneration and Development Fund (URDF) and the Rural Regeneration and Development Fund (RRDF). In tandem, the newly established Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR) (2019) is tasked with the independent evaluation of statutory plans to ensure policy consistency at national, regional and local level. 

The government is committed to eliminating carbon emissions in Ireland by 2050 as stated in the Our Shared Future – Programme for Government document (Department of the Taoiseach 2020). It is recognised in the Climate Action Plan that integrated spatial planning combined with targeted public investment will help to reduce carbon emissions from new development, will better connect work and homes resulting in shorter commutes and will deliver a better quality of life (Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, 2019). Project Ireland 2040 will be central in achieving emissions targets (DPER 2019).

Practical examples of the planning process, how plans are elaborated / how planning tools are used


2040 and beyond – A vision for Portlaoise: A strategy for a better town centre

Figure 9: 2040 and beyond – A vision for Portlaoise:  A strategy for a better town centre

Figure 9: 2040 and beyond – A vision for Portlaoise:  A strategy for a better town centre. Source: Laois County Council, 2018

The National Planning Framework selected Portlaoise, the administrative and largest population centre in County Laois, in the Eastern and Midland Regional Assembly (EMRA) region, as the location for a regeneration and demonstration project. In consequence, Laois County Council prepared ‘2040 and beyond – A vision for Portlaoise’. The objective of the area-based plan is to enhance good place-making in the context of achieving settlement consolidation and compact growth on infill and brownfield urban development land. The demonstration project is initiated at community level. The implementation of the vision is led by Laois County Council.

The population of Portlaoise increased by over 100% in 20 years from the mid-1990s to 2016 (from 9,474 to 22,050). The expansion of new housing and retail was characterised by extensive development oriented around a network of ring roads and outlying parking areas.  The challenge is to achieve physical integration of the new development areas and the compact historic centre. The urban design objective within a holistic, targeted urban regeneration plan is to create a more people-centric town. The strategic interventions include an enhanced built environment, heritage presentation, parks, landscaping, walkways and other quality of life improvements including reduced car dependency that will be cumulatively transformative. The creation of a ‘shared vision’ is agreed with the community and business in ‘public stakeholder workshops’ as part of the plan preparation process.

For more information about the use of ‘soft’ planning instruments, such as the urban integrated planning / renewal and community vision (such as given in the Portlaoise example) see the Supplemental Information.

Important stakeholders

Institution/stakeholder/authorities Research/competencies/administrative area
An Bord Pleanála Planning Board (appeals & reviews of strategic development)
An Taisce National Trust for Ireland
Carlow County Council Planning authority for county Carlow
Cavan County Council Planning authority for County Cavan
Clare County Council Planning authority for County Clare
Cork City Council Planning authority for Cork city and suburbs
Cork County Council Planning authority for county Cork
Department of Education Planning for schools and educational facilities
Department of Environment, Climate and Communications Environment including climate action, waste management and national broadband connectivity
Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage (DHLGH) Dissemination of national policy, direction & coordination of spatial planning actors
Department of Transport National transport policy
Donegal County Council Planning authority for county Donegal
Dublin City Council Dublin City planning authority
Dun-Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council Dun-Laoghaire-Rathdown planning authority
Eastern and Midland Regional Assembly (EMRA) Preparation of Regional Spatial and Economic Strategies (RSESs)
EMRA area
Environmental Protection agency (EPA) Environment protection, regulation and advocacy
Fingal County Council Planning authority for Fingal
Galway City Council Planning authority for Galway City
Galway County Council Planning authority for county Galway
Heath and Safety Authority (HSA) The HSA provides technical advice to planning authorities
Irish Water Irish water is the national water utility that is responsible for the development and delivery of water and waste water services
Kerry County Council Planning authority for county Kerry
Kildare County Council Planning authority for county Kildare
Kilkenny County Council Planning authority for county Kilkenny
Land Development Agency Assembly and preparation of strategic urban public land for large scale housing development
Laois County Council Planning authority for county Laois
Leitrim County Council Planning authority for county Leitrim
Limerick City and County Council Planning authority for Limerick city and county
Longford County Council Planning authority for county Longford
Louth County Council Planning authority for county Louth
Mayo County Council Planning authority for county Mayo
Meath County Council Planning authority for county Meath
Monaghan County council Planning authority for county Monaghan
National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) Manages the state’s conservation responsibilities
National Transport Authority (NTA) Transport planning, policy development and implementation including funding
North Western Regional Assembly (NWRA) Preparation of Regional Spatial and Economic Strategies (RSESs)
NWRA area
Offaly County Council Planning authority for county Offaly
Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR) Consistency of planning hierarchy, research and education
Roscommon County Council Planning authority for county Roscommon
Sligo County Council Planning authority for county Sligo
South Dublin County Council Planning authority for South Dublin
Southern Regional Assembly Preparation of Regional Spatial and Economic Strategies (RSESs)
Southern Regional Assembly Area
Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII) Management of national roads and the motorway network
Tipperary County Council Planning authority for county Tipperary
Waterford City and County Council Planning authority for Waterford City and county
Waterways Ireland Management, maintenance and development of inland waterways
Cross-border navigation authority for the entire island of Ireland
Westmeath County Council Planning authority for county Westmeath
Wexford County Council Planning authority for county Wexford
Wicklow County Council Planning authority for county Wicklow

Fact sheets


  • Attachment 1: Geographical location of the island of Ireland 
    Source: Mapwire.com (Free maps)

  • Attachment 2: Counties of Ireland
    Source: Prepared by M. Brennan, East Midland Regional Authority, 2021

  • Factors and influences on the Irish planning system 1960-present

    (adapted from Williams & Nedovic-Budic 2020)

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County Management Act, 1940. Available at: http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/1940/act/12/enacted/en/html (Accessed 7 February 2022)

Urban Renewal Act,1986. Available at: http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/1986/act/19/enacted/en/html (Accessed 7 February 2022)

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Local Government Reform Act, 2014. Available at: http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/2014/act/1/enacted/en/html (Accessed 7 February 2022)

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Urban Renewal Act, 1986 - Irish Statute Book. Available at: www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/1986/act/19/enacted/en/html (Accessed 7 February 2022)

Department of Finance. DOELG (Department of the Environment and Local Government)/ KPMG. (1996): Study on the urban renewal schemes.

Department of Finance (1999): Budget 2000 - Tax Strategy Group Papers: TSG99/32 - Urban and Rural Renewal Tax Incentive Schemes. Dublin.

Department of the Environment (1997): 1998 Urban Renewal Scheme: Guidelines. Dublin.

Department of Finance (2005): Background document on 2005 review of tax reliefs and high earners. Dublin.


An Bord Pleanála (www.pleanala.ie)
Central Statistics Office (CSO) (www.CSO.ie)
Citizens Information Board (www.citizensinformationboard.ie)
Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage (www.housing.gov.ie)
Eastern and Midland Regional Assembly RSES (EMRA.ie)
Industrial Development Authority (IDA) Ireland home page (www.idaIreland.com)
Department of Expenditure and Reform (DPER) (www.gov.ie/per)
Laois County Council (laois.ie)
Land Development Agency (LDA.ie)
List of government departments (https://www.gov.ie/en/service/list-of-government-departments/
Local Government Management Agency (lgma.ie)
Louth County Council (louthcoco.ie)
National Planning Framework (npf.ie)
North Western Regional Assembly (NWRA.ie)
Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR) (https://www.opr.ie)
Southern Regional Assembly (southernassembly.ie)

List of resources (websites) (https://www.)

Adamstown SDZ (2014): https://www.sdcc.ie/en/services/planning/strategic-development-zones/adamstown/adamstown-sdz-2014/

Environmental Protection agency (EPA) (www.epa.ie)

Grangegorman SDZ Planning Scheme (https://www.dublincity.ie/residential/planning/strategic-planning/strategic-development-zones/grangegorman-sdz)

National Inventory of Architectural Heritage (NIAH) (www.buildingsofireland.ie)

Institute of Public Administration (IPA) (https://www.ipa.ie)

Irish Georgian Society (IGS) (igs.ie)

Irish Government (www.gov.ie)

Irish Planning Institute (IPI.ie)

Land use Ireland (https://data.gov.ie/dataset/other-plans-land-use-zoning-ireland)

My Plan (www.myplan.ie)

North Lotts and Grand Canal Dock SDZ Planning Scheme (2013) (https://www.dublincity.ie/residential/planning/strategic-planning/strategic-development-zones/north-lotts-and-grand-canal-dock-sdz)

Poolbeg West SDZ Planning Scheme (2017): (https://www.dublincity.ie/residential/planning/strategic-planning/strategic-development-zones/poolbeg-west-sdz)

Project Ireland 2040 National Development Plan 2018-2027