Higgins raises eyebrows with criticism of tax cut promises

President pushing out boundaries of office with latest comments

President Michael D Higgins has questioned the emphasis being placed on tax cuts by political parties during an interview with Patsy McGarry on the eve of the general election campaign. Video: Bryan O'Brien

 

The role of president is rich in ambiguity. The Constitution lays down some things the holder of the office must do (appoint the taoiseach and government members, for example), some things he cannot do (be a TD) and some things he can do if he wishes (refer a Bill to the Supreme Court or refuse to dissolve the Dáil).

But generally the Constitution is fairly laconic on what a presidency should look or sound like. That leaves the incumbent with a lot of scope to shape the role. Mary Robinson was alive to that malleability.

In her successful campaign for the Áras in 1990, she made clear she had a more expansionist view of the office than previous officeholders. She made good on the pledge, using her popular mandate to take on a more active role in the public life of the State and in turn reshaping our understanding of the office.

Her successor, Mary McAleese, developed it further by bringing her own themes and personality to bear on a successful 14-year stint in the Phoenix Park.

‘Presidency of ideas’

Michael D Higgins also spoke about pushing the boundaries of the office. Central to what he describes as his “presidency of ideas” is a desire to challenge, to provoke, to question assumptions and orthodoxies.

Naturally, the ideas behind the “presidency of ideas” are largely Higgins’s own. And it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to learn that the lifelong socialist doubts the wisdom of offering voters big tax cuts. But it has raised eyebrows that he chose to say as much on the eve of an election in which the largest Government party and others are promising just that.

Is he crossing a line? The Constitution does not offer much of a guide. It does say he may, after consultation with the Council of State, “address a message to the nation” at any time on any matter of national or public importance. But each such message or address must “have received the approval of the government”.

So a strict reading of the text would suggest he cannot say anything without running it past Merrion Street. But that probably doesn’t accord with many people’s understanding of the presidency.

Does anyone – not least the one million people who voted for him – really want Michael D to cloister himself away in the Áras like a Trappist monk, tending to the garden while waiting for the Oireachtas to send him Bills to sign?

In reality the boundaries are quite subjective. But the convention has been the president avoids anything that might be construed as comment on government policy. Clearly he has now come closer to that line than at any point in his four-year-old presidency.

Close to the wind

It wouldn’t be the first time he has sailed close to the wind – as least as the Government sees it. Ministers were alarmed when, on a visit to London in February 2012, Higgins commented on the possibility of summoning the Council of State if the Government proceeded to ratify the fiscal treaty by legislation rather than by referendum.

There was fury in Government Buildings in November 2012 when, in the wake of Savita Halappanavar’s death, Higgins, reflecting the public mood, said his wish was “that there be some form of investigation which meets the needs of the concerned public and meets the need of the State”. (At the time the Government had set itself firmly against a public inquiry.)

Yet the Government has never formally complained to the Áras about anything Higgins has said. The explanation is partly practical, one Government source told The Irish Times last November: for years the Government was consumed by the economic crisis, and it had bigger problems on its agenda. It also helped Higgins that Labour was in Government and the President’s views often tallied with arguments they were making behind closed doors.

As one source with knowledge of the presidency points out, having a sympathetic government can give a president considerably more room for manoeuvre. But, according to another Government source, picking a fight with a president – particularly a popular one – can be more trouble than it is worth.