Fintan O'Toole: Irish presidents are the best in the world

As a Republic we can be proud we elect presidents of eloquence and gravity

Fifteen years ago, I was at a conference on Ireland in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was opened by the governor of the state, Mark Warner. After he spoke the usual words, there was a keynote address by the then president of Ireland, Mary McAleese. I was sitting next to Mark Warner's speechwriter. As the president was speaking, she whispered to me: "You know, my guy couldn't say one of those sentences."

It was a half-jokey remark and somewhat unfair to Warner, (now a senator) who is perfectly articulate. But it was meant to convey a simple awe at McAleese’s fluency, eloquence and gravity. And it brought it home to me how much we take it for granted that the people who speak for us are exceptionally good at it.

On the same weekend that we will, most probably, re-elect Michael D Higgins as president, a much more important country, Brazil, will presumably choose a foul-mouthed boor, Jair Bolsonaro, as its president. Another vulgar ignoramus will be tweeting abuse and lies from his couch in the White House. We live in an age of political coarseness and it has surely sensitised us to the relationship between language and democracy. Vile politics are expressed in crude, brutal words. It matters – to us and to the world – that since 1990 we have chosen presidents who address complex questions in complex ways, who use language thoughtfully, who weigh their words responsibly, who speak in order to illuminate, not to obfuscate; to comfort, not to ostracise.

Like Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese before him, Michael D Higgins has used the Irish presidency to talk about things that matter to the world

The very poor presidential election campaign has been an open invitation to cynicism and many have accepted it with glee. It’s all nonsense, it doesn’t matter, why bother voting? It is easy to miss two things. One is that the campaign has been poor for quite a positive reason: there is an incumbent head of state who is so widely admired, respected and liked that no one has been able to mount a convincing challenge to him. This may make for a bad election campaign but it surely reflects a pretty good situation – we have an elected head of state whose performance in the job over the last seven years has pleased most of us. At this moment of crisis for democracy itself, that is not trivial.


Blather and prejudice

It is all the more welcome because this popularity has gone hand-in-hand with a very high level of public discourse. Like Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese before him, Michael D Higgins has used the Irish presidency to talk about things that matter to the world. His speeches are reflective, searching and challenging. He is one of the very few heads of state anywhere who has delivered a sustained critique of neoliberalism and its consequences. And the evidence is that, for all the anti-intellectual sneering, Irish people are happy that he has done so. The one useful thing about the election campaign is that it has reminded us of the alternative: seven long years of vacuous blather or barstool prejudice.

I would not trade any of our recent presidents for all the crowned heads of Europe

But as well as the president, there is the presidency. It works. Mary Robinson radically reinvented it in 1990 and if every other part of Irish democracy had been reshaped so successfully, we’d be in a much better State. And it works because of us.

There are essentially three ways for a democracy to fill the limited but necessary job of head of state: a constitutional monarchy; a carve-up between political parties; or a direct election. The third is the most democratic – and therefore the most dangerous. Given the relatively narrow powers of the office, it practically invites voters to use it to let off steam or indulge in celebrity worship.

Charismatic chancers

We have consistently refused that invitation. Whatever the temptations, we have too high an opinion of ourselves to want a presidency that merely indulges either our own temporary whims or those of some charismatic chancer. In the gloom of this campaign we should not forget a remarkable truth: we do this really well. I can honestly say that, over the last 28 years, whenever I’ve been in a part of the world where the Irish president has been, there is a sense not just of admiration, but of envy: how do you guys manage to get someone like that?

The answer is complicated and it may even involve a certain reaction against a history of being shamed and traduced – we don’t want to let ourselves down in front of the neighbours. But I take an unreasonable pleasure in being able to answer, for example, an English monarchist who argues that popular elections would produce only vulgar and undignified heads of state. I would not trade any of our recent presidents for all the crowned heads of Europe.

I think we do this business better than almost anyone in the world. There are hardly so many aspects of our politics about which we can say this, that we can afford to be flippant or cynical about it. No one is going to mistake Friday’s vote for a thrilling moment in the history of Irish democracy. But it is a moment at which we remind ourselves that we are a republic – and take the rare chance to be justly proud of it.