Higgins has muscle to push boundaries of role


OPINION:In the interview in last weekend’s Irish Times to mark his first anniversary in office, President Michael D Higgins suggested he would like to extend the powers of his office without constitutional change. As with his predecessors, he said he was keen to push out its boundaries, “and I think I can go a little bit farther”.

His comments can be read as both a provocative declaration of intent, and an indication that he expects to continue to be allowed speak freely; as he also observed: “No one has asked me to change a speech . . . none at all.”

This is a far cry from the experience of some of his predecessors. In 1973, Fianna Fáil’s Erskine Childers fought an energetic presidential campaign, insisting he had agreed to run only on the basis that he could “expand” the role of president and become “composer and conductor of the National Orchestra”.

He promoted the idea of “think tanks” to discuss the country’s future, but Liam Cosgrave would not allow this and Childers became a prisoner of protocol. Behind the scenes, there were considerable tensions and disagreements between president and government.

The archival files in the Department of the Taoiseach give a good overview of the systematic censorship Childers was subjected to. Before he addressed a student society in UCD in October 1973, for example, the department insisted he delete the line “living was excessively frugal for a section of the population”.

Prior to a speech in Clare the following month, the department ordered the deletion of a sentence that read “in spite of all the known social and economic problems that still existed”. A speech shortly afterwards in Wexford fell foul of the censors because of the observation “there are strong reservations about community councils and their functions in local and central government”.

Subsequently, for an address to the Law Society in UCC, his proposed text contained a warning about “the evils of the capitalist system” which was regarded by the department as “skating on thin ice”. His references to church and Christian practices at a function in St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, were also rejected as “out of place in a speech by the president”.

Break from censorship

It is a measure of the dilution of censorship since those cautious days that Higgins is quite likely to address precisely the sort of issues Childers wanted to highlight, without the same kind of hindrance. In speaking in Cobh in April to commemorate the centenary of the Titanic, for example, the President thundered against the “folly of overweening material ambition”, and earlier this week he referred to the decline of human rights in Ireland since the 1990s.

Higgins has also had two-hour meetings with the Taoiseach every six weeks. In contrast, Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, president from 1974-1976, in a draft letter to Liam Cosgrave, suggested that on the surface their relations may have been “cordial”, but “I would however be failing in my duty if I did not record here – for history – that since I entered on the presidency . . . on none of the occasions of your infrequent visits . . . did you, in your conversations with me, say anything to me that could be construed even remotely to amount to keeping the president generally informed on matters of domestic and international policy”.

This is a reminder that there was more to Ó Dálaigh’s resignation in 1976 than simply the reaction to a speech in which the moronic minister for defence Patrick Donegan referred to him as a “thundering disgrace” for referring the Emergency Powers Bill to the Supreme Court for a judgment as to its constitutionality.

Ò Dálaigh had felt ignored and sidelined by the coalition government and Cosgrave in particular. Having been an agreed candidate for the presidency after the death of Childers, he was also preoccupied with the fact that he had not been elected, as he recorded in his private notes: “I accept I was a substitute for an elected president . . . I didn’t seek this office. I shall retain it only so long as I can do so with dignity.”.

During her term in the early 1990s, Mary Robinson was to find that Charles Haughey was determined to resist some of her ambitions; she was prevented, for example, from giving the BBC Dimbleby lecture in 1991. There was also opposition to her visiting west Belfast in 1993, but she went anyway, a measure of the extent to which she was moving from the presidency envisaged by her predecessor Paddy Hillery. He had wanted to do the job, in his own words, with “the minimum of self-projection”. He also suggested that the most important use of presidential powers “was sometimes not to employ them at all”.

More recently, Mary McAleese was able to successfully self-project and promote her reconciliation initiatives partly because they dovetailed with the governments’ wider peace process agenda. Because she chose the theme of “bridge-building” she will emerge from the history books as a “peace process president” who brought her mission to a successful conclusion with the visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 2011.

So where can Michael D Higgins take his presidency from here as he embarks on his second year in office? Robinson recalled that she pushed out the boundaries by “peeking over the line”; the expectation now is that a president can be somewhat bolder, and Higgins in his interview was keen to stress he has no intention of inventing a new Michael D.

Potential clout

There are also specific reasons, in the contemporary climate, why a voluble and forceful Higgins, if the lack of interference by government continues, could make a significant impact.

The National Cultural Institutions Act he introduced in 1997 is under threat from the disgraceful intention to abolish the independent boards of the National Library and National Museum, and he may find it hard to resist, in some way, stoking that and related fires when addressing cultural themes. He has also been vocal about the negative consequences of excessive centralisation of power.

It is also the case that the voices traditionally expected to challenge a conservative establishment and prick consciences are not strong enough. The Labour Party, due to its role in government and the embracing with gusto by some of its Ministers of austerity policies, has been neutered as a left-wing force, and the supposedly radical Opposition in the Dáil is splintered and licking its wounds.

There is indeed space for Higgins to push out boundaries by a focused and fiery presidential articulation of the causes and beliefs that have been the hallmark of his career to date.

Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at UCD and author of the just-published Ambiguous Republic: Ireland in the 1970s

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