Diarmaid Ferriter: Political concepts inform role of president

Presidency free to promote strong sense of justice not always State-approved

Former president Mary Robinson: described her approach as occasionally “peeking over the line”, for she pushed the role into political, social and economic areas. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

Former president Mary Robinson: described her approach as occasionally “peeking over the line”, for she pushed the role into political, social and economic areas. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

 

“Hi – my name is Saorla Ferriter. Here are some ideas why I think I would be a good student council member. I will be able to be in very early any day of the week. I love cleaning and organising things. I am happy to help with any jobs and I will be very happy to stand up for people if they are getting bullied or not treated nicely, and if anybody has any good suggestions I will mention them to the student council. If there are any jobs nobody wants to do I will do them with a smile on my face. Thank you for listening to my speech. Have a good day – Thank you.”

This is the election speech my nine-year-old daughter gave during the week while seeking election to the student council of her primary school. Whatever about her candidacy for that, she is constitutionally prohibited, due to her tender years, from becoming a candidate for the presidency of Ireland. There are, however, aspects of her speech that made me think about the presidency now that the final line-up of candidates has taken shape. Helping, standing up for people who are being bullied, making suggestions and being in early any day of the week are very much aspects of our modern presidency. There are also jobs the president needs to do that might be dreary (the late journalist James Downey described the presidency as a position “as full as tedium as of honour”) but they have to be done by a smiling president and a president will have to thank audiences, countless times, for listening to their speeches.

While I am not entirely pleased with Saorla’s speech – doing jobs nobody else wants to do with a smile makes me fear exploitation – she does seem to be driven by a strong sense of justice, is clearly aware of the limits of the powers of the student council and crucially, she did not over-promise by insisting she would get homework abolished. Again, there are lessons here for the coming presidential campaign.

Soft power

While it has rightly been highlighted that candidates, and the eventual winner, need to be acutely conscious of the limited role ascribed to the president by the Constitution, how they manage their soft power arising from their direct election by the people is not straightforward. I recall as a young student journalist in the autumn of 1990 asking my history professor, the late Ronan Fanning, what he thought of Mary Robinson’s campaign. He was haughtily dismissive: “What is the point”, he said “in running for an office that does not exist?”

What he was referring to was the idea of an “active” or “new” style of presidency being promoted by Robinson. Fanning argued, not unreasonably given his knowledge of the Constitution and the presidency to that point, and his cautious conservatism, that the largely ceremonial office did not allow for an exertive presidency. Precedent also suggested that such a presidency was a non-runner; Erskine Childers, after all, elected president in 1973, had ended up an unhappy prisoner in the office after he had promised he would be “composer and conductor of the national orchestra”. The government of the day, however, had other ideas and Childers was censored and sat upon and became a frustrated prisoner of protocol.

Bold as brass

Robinson, however, made a clever pitch in 1990; she did not over-promise and after her election spoke of “a mandate for a changed approach within our Constitution”. It was tricky to manage this, but it was successfully done, and the perception and ethos of the office changed, while the constitutional provisions remained the same. Robinson later described her approach, euphemistically, as occasionally “peeking over the line”. In reality this could be bold as brass, by straying into sensitive political, social and economic areas, and this continued with subsequent presidencies to the point where governments mostly adopted a hands-off approach, rendering the idea that the president could only speak a State-approved script on all occasions redundant.

Robinson made a clever pitch in 1990; she did not over-promise and after her election spoke of 'a mandate for a changed approach within our Constitution'

Current president Michael D Higgins has taken full advantage of this, and why wouldn’t he? Standing up to bullies or the victims of health scandals or those crushed by the unbroken embrace of “market forces” or the excesses of EU diktats is, of course, profoundly political. But it can be done in a way that both President, State and the electorate can live with as part of what most now perceive to be an important office for an independent-minded, intelligent thinker who is permitted to make a case, not just by speechifying but by whom they host and visit.

The challenge, however, is to find balance; to exercise this power and employ the symbolism judiciously, strategically and with dignity. The election campaign that is beginning should avoid bile and focus on how the candidates propose to strike that balance.

Saorla, meanwhile, awaits her electoral fate.

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