Seán Moncrieff: The presidency isn’t about politics. It’s about poetry

Robinson, McAleese and Higgins have occasionally reminded us that Ireland has come a long way

Áras an Uachtaráin: When Mary Robinson arrived in the park, the tone and meaning of the presidency seemed to change. Photograph: Frank Miller

Áras an Uachtaráin: When Mary Robinson arrived in the park, the tone and meaning of the presidency seemed to change. Photograph: Frank Miller

 

Here are a few things the President of Ireland cannot do: the President can’t promote business or end corruption or keep immigrants out. The President can’t change the status quo. (The President is the status quo.) Technically, the President’s only job is to protect the Constitution. Nonetheless a fascinating selection of people seem mad keen to become our head of state, most of whom have never before run for elected office. And I mean “fascinating” in the most judgemental way. 

But let’s not be negative. You could argue that it’s brilliant so many different sorts of people are politically engaged now. Or the whole thing has turned into a circus. If it’s option number two, then I blame Mary Robinson. Actually, I blame her for both options. After all, she was the one who gave the post some significance. Before her, Uachtarán na hÉireann was the political equivalent of Weekend At Bernie’s, where you’d have some crotchety old bloke waving or opening things. Some of them were probably alive, but it was grand either way. 

The presidency does come with some limited powers, of course, but no one expected them to be used that much; and they weren’t. Presidents have referred bills to the Supreme Court just 15 times in the last 78 years. 

She understood the power of symbol. The candle in the window of the Áras, visiting Queen Elizabeth in London, shaking Gerry Adams’ hand

And let’s not forget that when then minister for justice Paddy Donegan called then president Cearbhall O’Dalaigh a “thundering disgrace” in 1976 - for referring a bill - it was the president who resigned, not Donegan. Then taoiseach Liam Cosgrave refused Donegan’s resignation offer, assuming that a grovelling apology would keep the old fella happy. That he thought one of his ministers should be allowed to get away with name-calling the head of state (and the supreme commander of the Irish Defence Forces) vividly demonstrates how the presidency was regarded.

But when the first Mary arrived in the park, the tone and meaning of the presidency seemed to change. The fact that we’d elected a woman was of course hugely significant, but it was far more than that. Here’s the thing: as a lawyer, Robinson was eminently qualified for the job. But it wasn’t her legal brain that created the presidential metamorphosis. It was because Mary Robinson is also a bit of a poet. 

Specifically, she understood the power of symbol. The candle in the window of the Áras, visiting Queen Elizabeth in London, shaking Gerry Adams’ hand, travelling to Somalia and Rwanda: she inhabited the role of president as a living metaphor of Ireland, an Ireland that was now emerging into modernity, that could start to feel good about itself and perhaps even provide a positive example for the rest of the world. 

Things are better now, despite the many problems still to be addressed, and this should give us hope that things can get even better

Many Irish citizens fell in love with this version of the president: people who would never have voted for Mary Robinson in any other election. She somehow managed to move the office past her own biography and transform it into something political but also emotional, in the best sense of both those words. It engaged the heart and the brain, and this gave it a new power. Yes, it sounds all wimpy and liberal, but feelings should have a place in politics; just as they do in our lives. That’s what the presidency is about in Ireland now. And that’s important. 

In their own ways, the second Mary and Michael D both followed this template. All three have managed to occasionally remind us that we have come a long way in this country. Things are better now, despite the many problems still to be addressed; and that this should give us hope that things can get even better. It’s not the president’s job to tell us how this country should be improved, apart from the odd oblique hint. 

That’s up to the rest of us.

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