Presidential Commission could have taken over duties during campaign

Body fulfils functions and duties when the office is vacant or the president is abroad

During the campaign, Michael D Higgins divided his diary between presidential obligations and the campaign. There is no doubt it conferred some advantage to him. Photograph:  Reuters/ Clodagh Kilcoyne

During the campaign, Michael D Higgins divided his diary between presidential obligations and the campaign. There is no doubt it conferred some advantage to him. Photograph: Reuters/ Clodagh Kilcoyne

 

When it became known that the presidential election would be contested, President Michael D Higgins did not have a huge amount of precedent to go on.

The last time an outgoing president had faced a contest was in 1966 when Eamon de Valera, then 84, was challenged by Thomas O’Higgins of Fine Gael.

On the advice of the then taoiseach Seán Lemass, Mr de Valera did not campaign on the basis that as president he was above politics. Mr O’Higgins held rallies all around the State, where he presented himself as a younger alternative and a fresh voice.

The incumbent fulfilled all his obligations as president. Of course, that year was the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising and he attended events all over the country, with large guards of honours comprising old comrades.

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As Mr de Valera was not campaigning, RTÉ made the bizarre decision to not cover the campaign at all. Thus, Mr O’Higgins got next to no coverage. By contrast, every event that Mr de Valera went to as president was covered by the national broadcaster.

Half-way house

In this day and age, such an approach by Mr Higgins would not have been acceptable. What he decided on instead was a half-way house, where he divided his diary between presidential obligations and the campaign.

It led to slightly odd situations, where he would be a candidate, and subject to questioning, one day and a president, not facing questions, the next. His rivals complained he was able to control the agenda, set the rules – he did not participate in all the debates, of course – and enjoy the best of both worlds. There is no doubt it conferred some advantage to him.

A possible alternative, that would not require a Constitutional change, would be for the Presidential Commission to take over the formal duties of the presidency during the campaign period.

The commission is made up of the Chief Justice, the Ceann Comhairle of Dáil Éireann and the Cathaoirleach of Seanad Éireann. It fulfils all functions and duties of the office of president when the office is vacant or when the president is abroad.

It dealt with the collapse of the government in 1992, when then president Mary Robinson was abroad. It also took on her duties for two months in 1997 when she resigned early to become United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The commission fulfilled the role temporarily in 1974 when Erskine Childers died, and in 1976 when Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh resigned.

If the commission were to take on the role of the presidential office for the month-long campaign period, it would allow an outgoing president who was contesting again to take full part in a campaign, and avoid criticisms that he or she was dictating the terms and ground rules.

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