Flawed office needs an injection of harmony

 

The Presidency of Ireland is a flawed office. Most studies have concluded this. Some have addressed the problems with the President's powers. But the key problem most regularly highlighted is the relationship between the Presidency and the government.

It is against this background that yesterday's report of the all-party Oireachtas Committee about reform of the Presidency must be judged.

Yesterday's report tackles some of the problems, throws up some good ideas, but overall fails to solve one or two of the key problems.

Among its most interesting ideas was the proposal to allow 10,000 ordinary voters to nominate a candidate. That idea is certainly workable: it is used in Austria, Finland and Portugal. However, the problem with popular nominations is that they could allow the nomination of "issue" candidates who are not serious about the office but only want to use the campaign to push a particular agenda. It could throw up pro- and anti-abortion candidates, for example, who might use the campaign for exposure.

The real problem with the present nomination procedure is that it usually allows the political parties to keep the Presidency to themselves, sometimes agreeing on only one candidate. Lowering the number of TDs and senators needed to nominate a candidate from 20 to 10 as is suggested might work, but a better way not explored might be to (a) allow a joint session of the Oireachtas in secret ballot to nominate candidates - 20 TDs would quite easily support an independent candidate if through the secrecy of the ballot their party could not use the whip to stop them; and (b) follow Austria's example by requiring a popular referendum on a candidate, if only one candidate had been nominated, in a stroke stopping the scourge of "agreed candidates" getting the Presidency over the heads of the voters.

The committee's proposal to reduce the minimum age of a candidate from 35 to 18 is also to be welcomed. Lowering the age would encourage more people to get interested in the campaign, though if 10,000 people can nominate a candidate, any bets on how long it will take until we see the Union of Students in Ireland trying to run its candidate? Perhaps the best suggestion made is to allow the President award honours. Ireland at present is almost unique in being unable to honour its own distinguished citizens such as Sister Stanislaus, Bob Geldof, Jack Charlton, Adi Roche, John Hume or the thousands of people who have brought honour to their country. The proposal that the President himself or herself would make the choice, after consulting with the Council of State, is perhaps too wide. There is always the danger that the President might make ill-advised choices.

The fourth proposal that a president-elect be able to use an alternative declaration of office containing no religious references again makes sense. With tumbling levels of religious beliefs it is unavoidable that at some stage somebody with no religious beliefs will be elected President, and the committee's proposal would cover that problem.

Thankfully, the committee has avoided what was one of the most regrettable and ill-considered suggestions of the original Review Group, that the President's power to refuse a Dail dissolution be scrapped. There are problems with that power: President Hillery told Garret FitzGerald in 1982 that one reason he didn't refuse him a dissolution was because it was unclear whether having resigned as Taoiseach when refused a dissolution, FitzGerald could then seek a dissolution again if the Dail could not agree on a replacement Taoiseach. Regrettably, Hillery's problem over the resigned Taoiseach's power to seek a dissolution has not been clarified by the committee.

So yes, the committee's proposals as far as they go are worthwhile. The trouble is they miss the big picture. The central flaw with the office has always been the relationship between the government and the Presidency. Most heads of state, presidents as well as monarchs, are "Nominal Chief Executives". Executive authority is vested in them.

That may sound a bit formal, but it makes the head of state a real behind-the-scenes contributor in the political system. They and the government become team players. But under our system the President is an outsider. No access to cabinet papers or State documents. He or she sits in splendid isolation in the Park, frequently ignored by the government.

The most they can count on is an occasional visit from the Taoiseach to "generally" brief them. What is said and how often those briefings occur depend entirely on the Taoiseach, who can be as helpful or as useless as he wants. President O Ceallaigh had to make do with mere "10-minute chats" monthly from John A. Costello. President O Dalaigh was treated disgracefully, being briefed once every six months by Liam Cosgrave, "an act of constitutional defiance" in O Dalaigh's view, but there was nothing he could do about it. O Dalaigh ultimately led to his resignation in frustration.

Even recently when Queen Elizabeth and President McAleese met in Flanders it is probable that the queen and not Mrs McAleese was better informed about Irish Government policy, because she is briefed in detail about Ireland from the Foreign Office and the Dublin embassy, whereas all the President receives is an occasional general chat with the Taoiseach.

Yes, all our eight presidents had potentially a lot to contribute. O Ceallaigh, de Valera, Childers and Hillery were all experienced politicians, O Dalaigh and Robinson brilliant legal experts. Yet they were a resource completely untapped and underused.

At a minimum the Taoiseach must brief the President more often and in more detail, to give the office a value that it deserves. The committee, while it has done great work in some areas, has missed this major problem completely. Until it is corrected we will never be able to make full use of the resource in the Park.

Jim Duffy has advised the Australian Republic Advisory Committee on creating an Australian presidency. He is completing a major textbook on the Irish Presidency