Diarmaid Ferriter: Armagh controversy vindicates independent presidency

Controversy a reminder of changes in perception and style of presidency

President Michael D Higgins. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

President Michael D Higgins. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

In May 1974, the president of Ireland, Erskine Childers, wrote a private letter to the taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave. He had recently officially opened a swimming pool in Tipperary town named in honour of Seán Treacy, one of the local leaders of the IRA during the War of Independence: “We do not do half enough to commemorate the lives of those who worked for Ireland in the social, political and cultural fields in the 19th and 20th century to arouse the self-confidence of Irish people. When I opened the swimming pool in Tipperary, I found a museum commemorating the life of Seán Treacy... The museum contained nothing but guns.”

Childers had strong views on commemoration, hardly surprisingly given that his father was executed during the Civil War, but they had to remain largely private. In keeping with the contemporary perception of the presidency by governors and the tradition of partisan politics, Childers, who had stood for election as Fianna Fáil’s nominee, was rigorously censored when it came to his presidential desires and freedom of speech by a Fine Gael-led government. He was forbidden from hosting the “think tanks” he desired and his talk of “expanding” the role of president was dismissed by those who wanted the office to remain largely ceremonial.

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