Good relationship with Coalition critical as President pushes boundaries of office
Analysis: President Michael D Higgins’s good relations with Taoiseach have helped minimise political conflict
President Michael D Higgins: “I have a very good working relationship under article 28 of the Constitution.” Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA Wire
Ministers have refused to be drawn into any criticism of President Michael D Higgins over his comments about direct provision for asylum seekers which can only be interpreted as a criticism of Government policy on the issue.
Speaking in South Africa, the President described the direct provision system in Ireland as “totally unsatisfactory” even though Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald warned only two months ago against “unrealistic expectations” about fundamental changes the system.
Government sources have refused to criticise Higgins either on or off the record and argue that his comments, when taken in context, show he appreciates the complexity of the issue.
The bottom line for the Coalition, though, is that having endured a series of political embarrassments since the beginning of the year the last thing it wants is a confrontation with the President.
“The bottom line is that Michael D is doing a good job and if he strays over the line a bit from time to time that is something we just have to live with. It would be political madness to have a row with him,” said one Minister.
Free-market policy thrust The latest intervention from the President follows a number of major speeches in which he has been critical of the liberal, free-market thrust of economic policy that now prevails across the European Union.
Some senior civil servants have privately expressed worries that he going far beyond the remit of his office and is going to end up in collision with the Government.
David Gwynn Morgan, emeritus professor of law at University College Cork, has echoed this view. Writing in The Irish Times in 2011 he suggested the President went beyond his proper authority in commenting on the Savita Halappanavar case.
Morgan said the President was supposed, as head of state, to personify the State and act as a focus of unity for all citizens rather than setting himself up as a critic of the Government, however valid those criticisms might be.
UCD law lecturer Eoin Daly has taken a different view, arguing the President was not constrained in what he could say by the broad constitutional requirement of presidential neutrality.
One of the things that has helped the Government to take the various presidential interventions in its stride is that the President has maintained good personal relations with Taoiseach Enda Kenny and his senior Ministers.
There is an appreciation in Cabinet that while the President is pushing out the boundaries of his office he is doing so from his own deep convictions and is not seeking confrontation with the Government.
The President has spoken publicly about the fact that he has enjoyed good relations with both parties in Government since he took office.
“The way it works is this: I have a very good working relationship under article 28 of the Constitution, which says the President shall be kept informed of matters internationally and domestic,” Higgins told The Irish Times last year.
“The Taoiseach visits me every six weeks and we have meetings that are never less than two or 2½ hours. He tells me how things are going in Europe and the world and how things are going in relation to the legislative programme.
“And I, because I am around the country, I offer my views to him – this is a two-way process and I can say to you that it works because it is a very positive relationship that I have and that’s how it works.
“I can tell you we are independent offices and that independence is respected – I respect the role of government and since my inauguration, the Government has been entirely respectful and helpful of my independent role.”
This is a far cry from the atmosphere that prevailed in 1976 when the then president Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh resigned after then minister for defence Paddy Donegan referred to him as “a thundering disgrace”. The then taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave, had a poor relationship with Ó Dálaigh and the minister’s comments exacerbated what was already a tense situation.
Kenny and Higgins have a very different relationship and, so far at least, that has served to minimise conflict between the offices of President and Taoiseach.