President's remarks prove controversial
I Michael D Higgins’s comments on the Savita Halappanavar inquiry
President Michael D Higgins, in his recent interview with The Irish Times to mark the first anniversary in office, pointed to how Irish presidents, starting with Mary Robinson in 1990, had expanded the role.
“I’m happy to push along with that, and I think I can go a bit farther,” he said.
But, in his comments in Liverpool this week on the death of Savita Halappanavar, did Mr Higgins interpret the role a little too far and stray into the political arena?
Speaking about the case, he said: “My wish, frankly, is that there be some form of investigation which meets the needs of the concerned public and meets the needs of the family and meets the need of the State.”
The comments were, on the face of it, problematic because they were left open to the interpretation that he was making a political comment and being prescriptive about what kind of inquiry would be required.
It was obvious that an inquiry that met the needs of the Halappanavar family was a public inquiry and that is a course that the Government has – so far – set itself firmly against.
Fine Gael’s James Bannon wondered aloud if it was appropriate to make such remarks. In the Dáil on Thursday morning, Fianna Fáil’s health spokesman Billy Kelleher asserted that Mr Higgins was of the view that holding a private inquiry was “wrong”.
Mr Higgins’s former Labour colleagues in Government were quick to defend him, dismissing any such contention. Joan Burton described the comments as considerate, thoughtful, reflective and humane. Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore said he had merely reflected the national mood.
The following day, Mr Higgins defended his comments.
“On the specific issue of where do we go from here, I said it’s very important that the investigation be such as satisfied the genuine concern of the Irish people . . . and that . . . in some small way, helps reducing the grief for Savita’s husband and her family and then that meets the needs of the State’s responsibilities. It was no more and no less than that.”
The role of president is quite limited. The Constitution provides that if the president wishes “to address a message to the Nation”, he or she must have received the approval of the government in advance.
An increasingly wide discretion had already been exercised during the Robinson and McAleese presidencies on what can or cannot be said. Both presidents were able to speak out on issues not envisaged when the document was drawn up in 1937. It was only where there were political tensions between the government and the president of the day that difficulties occurred – notably between Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh and then taoiseach Liam Cosgrave in the 1970s and between Mary Robinson and Charles Haughey in the 1990s. Mr Haughey initially told Ms Robinson that his advice was she could not give press interviews. It was only after a one-on-one meeting in the Áras that he grudgingly conceded the point.
That Mr Higgins’s old party is in Government has helped ensure that the official interpretation of his comments on this controversy is benign.