Ireland profile - Leaders

President: Michael D Higgins

Irish President Michael D Higgins Image copyright AFP
Image caption Michael D Higgins is a poet and politician

Michael D Higgins, a veteran left-wing politician and human rights activist was elected president in 2011.

He is a former Galway university lecturer and published poet who has dedicated his four-decade political career to championing Irish culture and left-wing causes worldwide. He is an Irish speaker.

He also is also one of Ireland's most instantly recognized politicians, in part because of his short stature and much-imitated high voice.

Mr Higgins has served as a member of both houses of parliament in the Labour Party at various times, and was minister of the arts in the 1990s.

The Irish president wields little power beyond the ability to refer potentially unconstitutional legislation to the Supreme Court, but has an important symbolic role in representing Ireland at the national and international level.

Prime Minister (Taoiseach): Enda Kenny

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Enda Kenny has focused on cutting Ireland's public deficit

Enda Kenny came to power after winning early elections held in 2011, in the middle of Ireland's worst economic crisis in recent memory.

His centre-right Fine Gael party formed a coalition with the second-placed social-democratic Labour Party, replacing a government led by the centre-right Fianna Fail party.

Fianna Fail, which has dominated Irish politics for much of the post-World War II period, had suffered a catastrophic defeat after many voters blamed it for the way it handled the crisis.

Three months before the vote, the Fianna Fail-led government agreed an 85bn-euro EU and IMF bailout that came with tough requirements, including tax rises, structural reforms, the sale of state assets and three-monthly progress reviews.

On taking office, Mr Kenny launched a programme of spending cuts and tax rises designed to cut the deficit to 3% by 2015. His programme was endorsed by the European Union, and received a further boost at home when voters backed the European Union Stabilisation Treaty at a referendum in the summer of 2012.

He also took steps to rein in the country's banks, which had exacerbated the effects of crisis by lending recklessly during the "Celtic Tiger" boom years, fuelling an unsustainable property bubble.

In February 2013, Ireland reached an agreement with the European Central Bank (ECB) to ease the 28bn-euro bank debt burden arising from the nationalisation of the Anglo Irish Bank - a deal hailed by Mr Kenny as "an historic step" on the country's road to financial recovery.

In December 2013, Ireland became the first bailed-out eurozone nation to complete the lending deal put in place by the troika and throw off the financial straitjacket imposed, but a swing against both Fine Gael and the Labour Party in the February 2016 parliamentary election deprived the coalition of its majority.

Born in 1951, Mr Kenny worked as a primary school teacher before succeeding his father as the parliamentary deputy for Mayo in 1975.

He served on the New Ireland Forum and other groups seeking to improve Irish-British relations in the 1980s, and was briefly tourism minister in the mid-1990s. He became the leader of Fine Gael in 2002 and steered the party to its best-ever electoral showing at the 2011 elections.

Mr Kenny is married with three children. An Irish speaker like President Higgins, he took part in television debates in the language during the 2011 election campaign.

Though a practising Catholic, he backed moves in 2013 to introduce limited access to abortion for the first time in the history of Ireland, saying that the new legislation helped to clarify the law and reflected the mood of the Irish people.