The Irish Times view on the presidential race: where satire meets reality

Bunty Twuntingdon-McFuff’s daft proposals are entirely consistent with the tone of the campaign so far

President Michael D Higgins on he day of his inauguration in November 2011. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

President Michael D Higgins on he day of his inauguration in November 2011. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

 

At a Dublin City Council meeting on Thursday, a presidential hopeful who goes by the name Bunty Twuntingdon-McFuff laid out her agenda for a seven-year term in the Phoenix Park. She would turn Áras an Uachtaráin into a “hunting lodge and spa” where “wealthy guests would pay top dollar to hunt the deer” in the park. She also proposed a reality TV show called “In Your Áras”, which would follow the daily life of the president.

Twuntingdon-McFuff did not succeed in winning a nomination from councillors, but her daft proposals were entirely consistent with the tone and content of the current, seemingly interminable, prologue to the presidential election. This autumn, the line between satire and reality is vanishingly small.

The problem is that so many of the candidates’ proposals betray total ignorance of the functions of the president. A quick scan of Wikipedia would reveal the practical – not to mention constitutional and financial – obstacles standing in the way of proposals already inflicted by would-be candidates on councils across the State: to introduce military service, crack down on corruption, bring the media to heel or fly the foreign-born children of Irish emigrants back to Ireland for a month’s holiday.

As he surveys the parade of fantasists, conspiracy theorists and motivational speakers who seek to replace him as head of state, Michael D Higgins must feel his luck is in. But no candidate is unbeatable. Seán Gallagher, the businessman who last came to public attention when he ran for the presidency seven years ago, could test Higgins again. Sinn Féin will have the resources to mount a strong campaign.

The president of Ireland is a republican monarch, with no policy-making or spending powers but immense soft power that imbues his or her every word or action with symbolic weight.

The Constitution lays down virtually no red lines as to what a president can or cannot say, which means that, in the hands of a skilful incumbent, the influence and importance of the office can far exceed its formal standing. The most effective presidents have intuitively grasped that the key to exploiting its potential is to understand its formal limits.

But constitutional limitations are no excuse for platitudinous campaigning. Even the so-called serious runners this campaign season have resorted too often to vague and vapid words. It is not enough to be a voice for something or other. That voice must have something worthwhile to say.

When Higgins promised “a presidency of ideas” in 2011, we all understood that that meant Michael D’s ideas. One could agree or disagree with them, but nobody could argue that they didn’t know what he stood for. At this point, the same cannot be said of any of the would-be candidates.

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