President’s comments show a novel interpretation of his constitutional role

Inside Politics: Conflict between Áras and the Government likely at some stage if political interventions continue

 President Michael D Higgins said Europe faced a “moral crisis” and called on European leaders to undertake a radical rethink about how they are handling the economic crisis. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

President Michael D Higgins said Europe faced a “moral crisis” and called on European leaders to undertake a radical rethink about how they are handling the economic crisis. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Sat, May 4, 2013, 06:00

President Michael D Higgins’s forthright criticism of the European Union’s response to the financial crisis represents a direct intervention into political debate probably unprecedented in the history of the office.

While Higgins’s views would probably be endorsed by the majority of the electorate, his strong opinion on the major political issue of the day confronting Ireland and the EU shows a novel interpretation of his constitutional role.

Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore was quick to support the President’s latest comments, insisting he was simply reflecting the views of the Government. However, sometimes silence says more than words and it was hardly an accident that Taoiseach Enda Kenny refrained from comment.

The attempt by Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald to raise the President’s views in the Dáil was an indication that his viewpoint is feeding into party political debate. Then the strong endorsement yesterday from Independent TD Shane Ross, who has been a vitriolic opponent of the Government’s European policy, was a further indication that the President, who is supposed to be above politics, has put himself into the political arena.

From whatever angle it is examined the President’s criticism of the EU’s approach to dealing with financial and economic problems is a radical enlargement of the boundaries of his office.

The logic of his critique of the liberal economic orthodoxy prevailing in EU institutions and most of its member states, including Ireland, represents an implicit criticism of the Government’s approach.

Unilateral announcement
More critically there is a danger that the expression of strong views by the President on such matters could have implications for the Government’s negotiating position with EU institutions and other member states on issues that are of vital importance for the country’s economy.

Earlier this year Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte made a unilateral announcement that Ireland would not be paying the money due on promissory notes this year. His intervention put a serious spanner in the delicate negotiations being conducted by Minister for Finance Michael Noonan with the ECB on the subject and Rabbitte had to be slapped down very quickly. Disowning the President if he says something counterproductive will not be as easy and could lead to a constitutional crisis.

Higgins’s latest intervention came in an interview with the Financial Times in which he said Europe faced a “moral crisis” and called on European leaders to undertake a radical rethink about how they are handling the economic crisis.

In the interview the President was repeating views he had articulated in a much more elaborate form to the European Parliament in Strasbourg last month and in a lengthy address at the Sorbonne in Paris in February.

Senior civil servants were reported to be concerned about the speeches delivered by the President on both occasions, believing they represented a foray outside his constitutional remit and into the political arena.

However, the Government was loath to intervene for two reasons: the first was that a public row with the President is the last thing it needs given the problems it faces; the second is that Higgins was articulating views that particularly appeal to the Labour Party, whose candidate he was in the 2011 election.

While there has been conflict between the government and the president in the past – most notably in the case of Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh in the 1970s and Mary Robinson in the 1990s, neither of those presidents went nearly as far in articulating alternative political positions to the government as President Higgins.

One of the reasons for Kenny’s restraint is probably his awareness of the damage done to the Fine Gael-Labour coalition of the 1970s by the row with Ó Dálaigh that ultimately led to his resignation as president. That row developed from a presidential decision to refer a piece of emergency legislation to the Supreme Court rather than from any statement or action that could be regarded as outside his constitutional remit.

The then taoiseach Liam Cosgrave and Ó Dálaigh did not enjoy a great relationship and the president resented not being given regular briefings by the taoiseach.

Tensions involving Robinson were also exacerbated by her personal relations first with taoiseach Charles Haughey and then with tánaiste Dick Spring. The former president has recounted how Haughey did everything he could to limit her role. He even refused her permission to leave the country to deliver the annual Dimbleby Lecture on the BBC.

A more serious confrontation arose with the Fine Gael-Labour coalition later in the decade when president Robinson shook hands with Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams against the advice of the government, which was then engaged in talks to get the peace process back on track.

Absence of suspicion
The current situation has not become nearly as tense as those earlier confrontations. But in some respects it is potentially more serious despite the fact that

Kenny and Higgins get along well, having known and liked each other for more than 30 years. The present Taoiseach is also punctilious about meeting the President to brief him on developments on a monthly basis unlike the situation in the 1970s when Ó Dálaigh was president.

There is also an absence of the kind of suspicion that governed relations between Robinson and Haughey and, unlike Spring, this Tánaiste enjoys a good relationship with the current Labour president.

Nonetheless, it is difficult to see how a conflict between Áras an Uachtaráin and the Government can be avoided at some stage in the Coalition’s lifetime if the President’s political interventions continue and become even more overt.

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