Higgins has muscle to push boundaries of role
OPINION:In the interview in last weekend’s Irish Times to mark his first anniversary in office, President Michael D Higgins suggested he would like to extend the powers of his office without constitutional change. As with his predecessors, he said he was keen to push out its boundaries, “and I think I can go a little bit farther”.
His comments can be read as both a provocative declaration of intent, and an indication that he expects to continue to be allowed speak freely; as he also observed: “No one has asked me to change a speech . . . none at all.”
This is a far cry from the experience of some of his predecessors. In 1973, Fianna Fáil’s Erskine Childers fought an energetic presidential campaign, insisting he had agreed to run only on the basis that he could “expand” the role of president and become “composer and conductor of the National Orchestra”.
He promoted the idea of “think tanks” to discuss the country’s future, but Liam Cosgrave would not allow this and Childers became a prisoner of protocol. Behind the scenes, there were considerable tensions and disagreements between president and government.
The archival files in the Department of the Taoiseach give a good overview of the systematic censorship Childers was subjected to. Before he addressed a student society in UCD in October 1973, for example, the department insisted he delete the line “living was excessively frugal for a section of the population”.
Prior to a speech in Clare the following month, the department ordered the deletion of a sentence that read “in spite of all the known social and economic problems that still existed”. A speech shortly afterwards in Wexford fell foul of the censors because of the observation “there are strong reservations about community councils and their functions in local and central government”.
Subsequently, for an address to the Law Society in UCC, his proposed text contained a warning about “the evils of the capitalist system” which was regarded by the department as “skating on thin ice”. His references to church and Christian practices at a function in St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, were also rejected as “out of place in a speech by the president”.
Break from censorship
It is a measure of the dilution of censorship since those cautious days that Higgins is quite likely to address precisely the sort of issues Childers wanted to highlight, without the same kind of hindrance. In speaking in Cobh in April to commemorate the centenary of the Titanic, for example, the President thundered against the “folly of overweening material ambition”, and earlier this week he referred to the decline of human rights in Ireland since the 1990s.
Higgins has also had two-hour meetings with the Taoiseach every six weeks. In contrast, Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, president from 1974-1976, in a draft letter to Liam Cosgrave, suggested that on the surface their relations may have been “cordial”, but “I would however be failing in my duty if I did not record here – for history – that since I entered on the presidency . . . on none of the occasions of your infrequent visits . . . did you, in your conversations with me, say anything to me that could be construed even remotely to amount to keeping the president generally informed on matters of domestic and international policy”.
This is a reminder that there was more to Ó Dálaigh’s resignation in 1976 than simply the reaction to a speech in which the moronic minister for defence Patrick Donegan referred to him as a “thundering disgrace” for referring the Emergency Powers Bill to the Supreme Court for a judgment as to its constitutionality.