Visions of the presidency: the promises v what's possible


Analysis by DAVID FARRELL, Professor of Politics at UCD


"The primary role of the next president will be to protect the Constitution. However, the people are being asked to change the Constitution in two important ways, and I am concerned at both the potential impact of these changes and the complete lack of real debate or scrutiny of these proposals."

"I believe in putting together a totally inclusive Council of State. I want to ensure all strands of society are represented on it and therefore I want to have a person with an intellectual disability represented on the Council of State with the appropriate support systems."

"My intention is to utilise the seven members of Council of State for things other than considering Bills referred by the president. I would like them to be ambassadors for issues of real concern to people – unemployment, disability, mental health. There is nothing in the Constitution that says you can’t do it."

"I believe that the next president must use the office to challenge the failings of Ireland’s political system."

"Ireland’s tarnished reputation must be restored. The next president must tell the story of Ireland’s recovery."

Analysis of Davis

THE PROPOSALS relating to the membership of the Council of State would seem to build on some of the practices of the two most recent holders of the office of president. For instance, both Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese appointed activists from the voluntary sector (Mary Davis being a case in point), and both also had members with disabilities (Donal Toolan and Daráine Mulvihill), and for that reason it would seem churlish to say the least to attack her for proposing a “totally inclusive” Council of State, particularly as there would always be other members of the council who would have the requisite constitutional or political skills to advise the president.

However, it is one thing to broaden the pool of members of the Council of State, it is quite another to extend its remit. While there may not be an explicit injunction in the Constitution preventing the president from making her appointees “ambassadors for issues of real concern to people”, the plain fact is that a member of the Council of State is not an office-holder free to operate in competition with TDs or government ministers.

Nor can they speak on behalf of the president, not at least unless that has been cleared by the government (as per Article 13).

Somewhat similar to Dana Rosemary Scallon there is a lot of guff about things that the president has little if any say over: Mary Davis may like to think that, if elected, she could “challenge the failings of the political system” but, like it or not, that could only be with the co-operation and consent of the government of the day.


"I want to put enterprise and job creation at the heart of the next presidency because local employment is what holds our communities together."

"Unemployment and emigration are the key issues facing our country now and our next president must help to set the tone to deal with these challenges."

"Electing a president with a proven track record in enterprise and job creation sends a very clear message to the country and also internationally that Ireland is open for business."

"The presidency should be above party politics."

We need to change our thinking and our language from the negative to the positive. I want to move away from what’s not working and to recognise and acknowledge what is.

"We need to change the old ways of doing things. This is not a party political campaign and multiple posters adorning lamp-posts have no place. I am deeply disappointed that I had to deliver my election leaflet through An Post as a single delivery. I believe that spending vast amounts of money at time when families and communities are really struggling is obscene."

Analysis of Gallagher

THAT THE president should be “above party politics” has been a common enough refrain of Seán Gallagher’s campaign (and that of some of the other non-party candidates): but as president after president has demonstrated without exception, the plain fact is that the office patently already is above party politics. So this is a non-issue.

It’s one thing to save public money by not hanging posters, but what about the €200,000 of public money Gallagher will be entitled to assuming, as the polls suggest, he passes the minimum vote threshold? If he truly thinks that “spending vast amounts of money . . . is obscene” will he forgo that public funding too?

While he has been clever in distinguishing himself from the other candidates by focusing on his particular strengths in business, he has run the risk of exposing himself to attack over his own business failures, as has been shown by recent broadsides by some of his competitors.

And he has left himself open to the quite reasonable charge that the pro-business line he would want to promote is already the remit of Richard Bruton, the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. He and other Government members are unlikely to be sympathetic to Gallagher treading on their toes.

As has been suggested, if he really seeks a proactive role in promoting the business agenda, Gallagher might have been better advised running for the Dáil.


"I offer a vision of a radically inclusive citizenship, in a creative society, worthy of a real Republic – making us proud to be Irish in the world."

"I will support those initiatives where citizens are again actively imagining and debating our shared vision as a nation. I will also take a strong interest in the deliberations and outcomes of the national constitutional convention proposed by the Government."

"Another priority will be the strengthening of Ireland’s connection with its wide diaspora. One formula that I believe is worthy of consideration is that those who were on the electoral register, or would be entitled to be on it, should be able to retain the right to vote in some or all of our elections for a specified period, perhaps five to 10 years."

"I believe we must now promote a positive vision of what it means to be a citizen in Ireland. A citizenship based on equality and respect with a basic level of rights and participation, a “citizenship floor”, below which no one should be allowed to fall. We need to move away from radical individualism towards a radical kind of inclusion."

"The president is Ireland’s face to the outside world, and should highlight the best on which our reputation is built."

Analysis of Higgins

MICHAEL D Higgins manages more skilfully than most of the other candidates to appear to promise certain outcomes that are formally outside of the remit of the presidency while at the same time staying “on message” about the true role of the president.

As he well knows, it is the government in power, not the president, that would propose changes to the electoral registrar to extend voting rights to recent emigrants, and sure enough this is precisely the move that is promised (for presidential elections) by the current Government.

The presidency seminars seems neutral enough, and one would imagine that the Government might well accede to that initiative.

And, of course, as president, Michael D Higgins would have just as much right as you or I to take a “strong interest” in the deliberations of the proposed constitutional convention. Indeed, there has been some speculation that, if elected, Higgins might actually be given some sort of role in the constitutional convention: but what that might be is unclear, as are when and how the convention might be constituted and what its remit might be.

The notion of a “citizenship floor” is interesting, rather elegantly replacing the Celtic Tiger-era type notions of citizens’ rights (as individuals) with a more appropriate vision of citizens’ responsibilities to and their place in the wider society.


"I will use the presidency to bring people North and South together. I will be a president for people in all 32 counties of Ireland and for the Irish diaspora across the world."

"I would continue the example of President McAleese in ensuring that Áras an Uachtaráin is an open house for those from the unionist community and for those sections of our society who have been marginalised."

"I will only take home the average wage and will return the rest to the Irish people."

"I am standing on a platform of hope, of change, of strong representation and of leadership."

"I am standing on my record as someone who has already been central in bringing huge change to Ireland, particularly in the North."

Analysis of McGuinness

THERE ARE some laudable enough objectives in the mix that on the face of it would build on the work of the two most recent presidential incumbents, both with regard to reaching out to the Irish diaspora (Mary Robinson’s prominent theme) and in building bridges between the two parts of the island (the noted legacy of Mary McAleese).

Of course, factually speaking, if elected Martin McGuinness would not be “a president for people in all 32 counties”, not least since the referendum on the 19th amendment to the Constitution in 1998 that removed articles 2 and 3 as part of the Belfast Agreement.

McGuinness’s promise to take only the average industrial wage was a clever tactic to set his candidature apart from the others and it has generated a fair deal of heat (if not light), particularly in the first part of the campaign. It is also consistent with the practice of other Sinn Féin elected representatives. He would, of course, be perfectly entitled to implement this proposal. But the details that still need to be resolved are two-fold. First, what does he propose to do with the pension he would receive that would be based on the income allocated to the president?

Second, what happens to the surplus income? The current practice followed by Sinn Féin representatives is to plough the money back into the constituency party organisation, leaving them open to the charge that rather than saving taxpayers money they are using it to further the interests of their party. Exactly how does he propose to “return the rest to the Irish people”?


"As we face the centenary of 1916, the next president is gifted the task of leading a renewal of our Republic. My first proposal is that the next president have overall responsibility for the planning and organisation of the centenary commemorations."

"I will be a president who other countries see as representing Ireland’s can-do spirit – a president who says Ireland is open for business."

"As president I would set up a new initiative, working with other heads of state, to address the horrific figures of death among children in other parts of the world."

"The office of president is above party politics. But as part of the Oireachtas, it is a political office."

"I want to return to a society based on principles; to a less harsh and a more merciful and forgiving society."

"My political conviction is informed by an ethos based on the four pillars of rights, responsibilities, enterprise and social justice."

"It is shocking that each year we lose some 600 people to death by suicide. That is two planes full of people per year. Why are we not putting this at the very top of the agenda?"

Analysis of Mitchell

MUCH OF this is in danger of falling foul of the “tanks off my lawn” dictum.

I suspect there are not a few government ministers to say nothing of the taoiseach of the day who might have a thing or two to say about the proposal that the next president should be given overall responsibility for the 2016 centenary commemorations.

Few events come bigger than this, and it would be a curious move (politically a mad one certainly) for government leaders to surrender that particular political goodie.

Equally I’m sure that there would be raised eyebrows raised at government (to say nothing of UN) level over the suggestion that a cabal of heads of state might take the lead on dealing with issues to do with child poverty.

Gay Mitchell is quite right in his observation that the office of the president is part of the Oireachtas, even if his motivation for saying this is a bit of a dig at some of the other candidates such as Seán Gallagher who tend to push a line of the presidency being “non-political”.

As is the case with all the candidates, there is a tendency to raise policy issues without actually proposing anything concrete.

So, Mitchell tells us that suicide needs to be placed at the very top of the agenda, but we’re not told to what end.

Mitchell is explicit enough about his political convictions, though it’s not entirely clear what is the basis of his “four pillars”: why these four? Exactly what ideological perspective is he seeking to convey?


"I am putting human rights, the welfare of the people and those at the margins at the heart of my presidency."

"This is a referendum as much as an election, a chance for ordinary people to change things. Their vote is No to the establishment. Their vote is Yes to the first person from outside the political party system that has sought election to the presidency."

"If the Coalition takes possession of the presidency it will in effect control every single lever of power in the State. It would in my opinion, be a mistake to give it such all-encompassing control of the seats of power in Ireland."

"I am a lifelong champion of culture, both domestically and abroad."

"The benefits of the promotion of culture will help boost the self-esteem of the nation and personify all that is great about us as people."

"I am committed to the promotion of both indigenous industry and foreign direct investment."

"If successful in being elected as the next president, I will shine a light on mental health issues within Irish society."

Analysis of Norris

THERE ARE plenty of platitudes (shining lights, championing, and so on) and again some laudable enough objectives (such as representing the marginalised, and promoting industry), but as with many of the other candidates there is also a serious over-estimation of the role of the office of presidency.

Whatever the final outcome and no matter what the various commentators may read into the election result, there is simply no way in which the victory of any of these candidates could be read baldly as a “No to the establishment”. Even if an Independent candidate, such as David Norris, were to win, once they take the oath of office they become the first citizen, taking “precedence over all other persons in the State” (Article 12) – the personification of the establishment. Equally, it is entirely inaccurate and wrong to suggest that if either Gay Mitchell or Michael D Higgins were to win the election “the Coalition takes possession of the presidency”. There is plenty of historical precedent to show how president after president has treated the independence of the office of presidency as sacrosanct, despite in many cases being of the same party as the party in government (as certainly was the case for most of the Fianna Fáil incumbents).

If David Norris really wants to prevent this Government, or any government from controlling “every single level of power in the state”, he would be far better advised focusing on the wider debates over the need for fundamental reform of our political institutions. The way to limit the monopoly power of the government is to make it more accountable to the Oireachtas. Electing an Independent won’t make a blind bit of difference to that.


"The presidency isn’t just about ceremony, it’s about protecting our constitutional rights and values and giving the people a voice by raising the issues that really matter to you."

"I will be a president for all of the people. I will be an honest, truly independent, and inclusive president who will listen to and speak for you. As president I will make sure there is a meaningful forum where your voice can be heard."

"Too much of our decision-making power has already been handed away to international bodies, and too many of our people are suffering as a result. As an MEP, I warned of the danger to our sovereignty from the Nice treaty, Lisbon treaty, and the proposed EU constitution. As president, I will continue to protect our sovereignty and your rights under our Irish Constitution."

"To help promote job creation, I would ensure that Ireland is positively identified as a country with values and a strong work ethic that is attractive and profitable to international trading partners and investors."

"Above all, I would put Ireland first and be a president that you can trust to protect our Constitution and your rights."

Analysis of Scallon

OF ALL the candidates, Dana Rosemary Scallon has made the greatest effort to develop the argument that the president is there to “protect our Constitution”. The consistent refrain throughout her campaign has been that she will be “truly independent”; on at least one occasion (notably during the first television debate) she appeared to even go so far as to suggest that she would refuse to sign a Bill that she disagreed with. The strong signal she gives is one of wanting to be a president that is independent of government, speaking directly to the people about the issues that she would perceive as mattering to them – apparently many of these relating to her concerns over the deepening of European integration.

To varying degrees, commentators have sought to correct her on all of these things. As some have noted, for instance, the ultimate “protectors” of the Constitution are the courts not the presidency. The suggestion that a president could refuse to sign a Bill completely misinterprets Article 26 under which a president can refer a (non-money) Bill to the Supreme Court. It is for the court to determine the constitutionality of the Bill. The referral occurs after the president has consulted with the Council of State, whose members, including the taoiseach and tánaiste, among others, are likely to be sympathetic to the government’s position.

And, of course, in the event that the Supreme Court does find the proposed legislation unconstitutional, there is nothing to stop the government producing a revised Bill. Finally, the idea that a president could be “a voice by raising the issues that really matter” is hard to square with the fact that, under the Constitution, the president must seek the approval of the government before making any public statement.