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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: August 27, 2011 @ 8:41 pm

    The Presidency: What Is It For?

    Deaglán de Bréadún

    There is a need for a proper debate about the presidency, what it is for and whether we need one at all. In that spirit I have assembled a few thoughts based on the constitutional provisions for the office. The President is not really meant to be a cheerleader although there is no reason why s/he cannot make inspiring speeches from time to time.  

    The following piece of mine appeared in today’s print edition:-

    ALTHOUGH HE spent much of his career abroad, the recently deceased and sadly-missed academic Peter Mair kept a close and critical eye on of his native country. His lecture at this year’s MacGill Summer School, published in these pages last week, contained sharp insights into our social and political condition.

    “We have never respected our State. We have never had a sense of belonging to our State. If anything we see the State as the enemy, as an oppressor,” the Sligo-born academic said.

    He was undoubtedly correct and the tortured manner in which the State itself came into being had a lot to do with it. Instead of the pure and untrammelled republic our patriots dreamt of, we ended up with a combination of the old British apparatus – not all of it bad by any means – and a parliament that took years to secure the consent of different elements of the original independence movement.

    No doubt it was in recognition of this fact that Éamon de Valera was so concerned with the role of head of State when he and others prepared the text of the Constitution which was approved by the electorate on July 1st, 1937.

    One wonders how Dev would feel if he witnessed the comings and goings over the presidency recently and the way it has been reduced almost to the level of the television talent show the X Factor, with celebrity seeming to be a more important qualification than experience and sound judgment.

    There is nothing in the Constitution to prevent non-politicians seeking a nomination for the presidency and it might be healthy for our political system if someone outside the system ended up in the job. But all candidates need to be clear as to what it entails and that isn’t primarily to dispense hokum and blather to “cheer people up”.

    We must recall the context in which the office was created. In the year the Constitution was approved, Europe was largely under the thumb of various dictators, ranging from Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, Stalin dominating Russia and its satellites, Salazar ruling Portugal and Franco preparing to take power in Spain.

    The lack of active powers given to the Irish president lessened the likelihood of a dictator arising in our midst with all the attendant miseries of permanent concentration camps, comprehensive elimination of dissent and vicious persecution of minorities.

    Perhaps it is this absence of day-to-day power in the president’s job-description that has led to many people thinking of the post as a political irrelevancy, a kind of national cheerleader whose role could be filled by some jovial extrovert with the gift of the gab.

    But the president has a potentially crucial role as a constitutional “back-stop”, particularly in the event of deep political crisis. Happily that role has never had to be tested but, just as a fire brigade unit may never have to put out a blaze at your house, it is good to know there is a service nearby.

    The best guide to the office is a rare and little-known publication by Michael McDunphy entitled The President of Ireland: His Powers, Functions and Duties (written long before the notion of a female president!). The author was himself secretary (now known as secretary-general) to the president as well as being a barrister, and his slim 120-page volume was completed in April 1945 and published by Browne and Nolan.

    That was a bad month for dictators with Mussolini executed by communist partisans on April 28th and Hitler shooting himself at the Berlin bunker two days later, but this State and its political system had come through the conflict relatively unscathed. McDunphy explains the president’s role as the people’s guarantor, who has the right to refer most types of Bills to the Supreme Court to ensure they are in line with the Constitution.

    Less well-known is the fact that the president can, on receipt of a petition from a prescribed number of TDs and Senators, decide a Bill contains a proposal of such importance that its content must be put to referendum of the people or to the vote of a newly elected Dáil.

    Party discipline has inhibited the use of that provision but with the decline in old loyalties and the renewed importance of Independents, who knows when it might be exercised? The president can refuse a dissolution of the Dáil to a taoiseach who has failed to retain a majority and wishes to hold a general election. The head of State can say to our TDs: “Go back and try again for a new taoiseach”.

    One can envisage situations where the exercise of this power could be crucial to stability in a time of real crisis. By the same token, Patrick Hillery’s refusal to exercise the power at the request of Brian Lenihan snr and Charles Haughey served to uphold the independence of the office.

    The president may also, at any time, convene a meeting of either the Dáil or Seanad, or both. With some delicacy, McDunphy suggests that the purpose of these measures is to “prevent an undesirable use or non-use of powers” on the part of the government of the day by transferring the right of judgment to a higher tribunal. Let’s hope it never happens, but it could.

    In the pre-referendum debate on May 11th, 1937, Éamon de Valera said the president’s function was “to guard the people’s rights and mainly to guard the Constitution”. To put it another way: the holder of the office needs to “walk softly and carry a big stick” – or maybe, as in Hillery’s case, a golf club will do.

    The current focus on celebrities is partly a byproduct of the public’s understandable alienation from the political class who are seen as collectively complicit to a greater or lesser degree in the events leading to our current economic difficulties.

    It also reflects a lack of understanding, bred out of the hostility Mair spoke about, in relation to the functions of the State itself and the role of the presidency within it. Maybe one of our media personalities would indeed make a good president – but for their other attributes rather than their fame.

    • Desmond FitzGerald says:

      If we had a proper executive that could be held to account in the first place, that means both in the Dáil and at all other levels of government, where at the moment it seems there is zero accountability – who can name a single public servant who is involved in whispering sweet nothings in the ear of a minister – what are their qualifications for having that level of influence, why has not one single member of staff in any department been sacked and/or lost rank and/or benefits for their role in the failure of governance over the last ten years or so?

      It’s all very well saying the office was set up in 1937 but we don’t live in 1937 anymore, we live in 2011 and perhaps if Mrs Robinson had been as proactive in evolving the role to point out the flaws in governance as she was in finding her next pension pot at the UN then some of the danger signs of how Ireland was going wrong would have been heeded and if Mrs McAleese paid more attention to the complete breakdown of parliamentary governance that led to NAMA, with zero legislative input, some of the pain that occurred after could have been avoided.

      Are we really expected to believe Gay Mitchell – of all people – to be anything other than a throwback to the 1970s – his political hardwiring was done in the worst decades of politics in Ireland (the 70s/80s) so what can someone like him, or Michael D, have to offer a modern new Ireland looking to the future? Gay Mitchell is the personification of the local crony politican – it’s how he’s won so many elections and I don’t see any sign he is any different, having been in Brussels for so long. He and his Fine Gael and Labour colleagues have consistently voted against all attempts for reform or transparency of MEPs’ expenses and pensions.

      Are these the best Ireland can offer at the moment – what a grim reflection of what we have become.

      Also, when will the media start asking all the candidates the hard questions on why the salary of the President shouldn’t be a token €50k, with a token pension as in office they don’t put their hand into their pocket for anything. Why should the likes of Gay Mitchell get a presidential salary and pension on top of his TDs pension, his ministers pension, his MEPs pension and his MEPs salary?

      I was talking to my mother in July when she was over here to visit and we chatted about stuff and she mentioned did I remember when I was so involved in FG and was all on for pursuing a career in politics. Then she said, I’m so glad that you ended up going in a different direction as there’s nothing to admire in those who go into politics in Ireland anymore. She also wondered if she’d ever live long enough to see anyone held to account (she specifically mentioned seeing Ahern and Cowen strung up!) or any of her children or grandchildren return to live in Ireland before she died – turns out she wouldn’t as she died very suddenly the following week from a massive stroke. Her actual last words to me at Heathrow were ‘I’m so glad you’ve been able to make a good life for yourself as you couldn’t do it in Ireland’ followed by the usual ‘God bless son’!!

      The point being if someone of her generation has lost faith in their church, politics, business people being honest or the professions being honest what pillars are left to rebuild a stable society on?

    • Peter Barrins says:

      Interesting points and insights, particularly in relation to the Irish people and their perception of State and national identity.

      The current candidates for the presidential election are dreary and the whole thing seems to have descended into a bit of a farce.

      Personally, I think the Taoiseach would do fine as Head of State, with the Chief Justice performing the current duties of the President in relation to dissolving the Dail, appointing the Cabinet and approving legislation – although that might be a problem.

    • RPE McCarthy says:

      Hi Deaglán

      I think you raise some interesting points at a time where we are not alone in reflecting on the role of the Head of State. Recently, in the UK, the Queen’s consort has been under the microscope due (primarily) to his longevity.

      Similarly, in the Netherlands, one libertarian party which is gaining a lot on centre ground support wants to remove ALL the political functions of the Queen including the political role of the royal family as Head of State. They would move towards what the French call a hyper-presidential model along US lines (de Gaulle was too stubborn to admit that like de Tocqueville, he was a fan of the US system). Should all the proposals be accepted in the Netherlands the Head of State and the Head of Government (like the US) will be one and the same.

      So if we look at the Irish model, our President is technically the Commander in Chief of the Defence Forces, the technical Guardian of the Constitution and has a small number of other modest powers. While you are right that the office was created at a time when totalitarianism of extreme left and extreme right was in vogue, it mirrored to some extent the Presidencies in (for instance) Germany where Hindenburg (a popular nonagenarian 1st world war general) was a decrepit, elderly man manipulated easily by one A. Hitler for his own means.

      I personally would like somebody that has enough political knowledge to be able to exercise the functions of the office whilst being able to emphasize some extremely important non-commercial aspects of wider society. This should not merely be civil society as almost everyone in Ireland has an appreciation of civil society. I think it is high time that somebody of the arts re-engages with politics and helps to emphasize one of the qualities most associated with our island nation and migrant peoples. We have not had a President from the Arts since Douglas Hyde.

      That is why I would have liked to have seen David Norris stay in the race. I do not believe his campaign was mortally wounded, I think people rather that the feral media would have had the compassion to understand the issue at stake and judge the individual in the round. Let he who is without sin etc….

      I am underwhelmed by all the remaining candidates. We have turbo-Dub (an extremely conservative, dublin-centric orthodox Catholic), an Rí na ndaoine beaga (a very liberal, left wing champagne socialist), a fiery FF national executive member standing as an Independent and a distinguished “Independent” civil society campaigner who accepted a number of appointments from previous FF administrations.

      Incidentally, the obsession with celebrity is being driven by some of the most crass elements in the media including but not limited to a certain indigenous broadsheet rag printed on Sundays.

    • Charles Augustine Collins says:

      Charles Augustine Collins is someone who as president could do much to stimulate the economy by promoting small business development. Don”t buy candy buy seeds. Plant a victory garden. Don’t violate the first rule of nature which is abundance.Charles has a nickname ” Nick”. His other nickname is “Googie” Boogie with Googie.

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