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.