The President and the Defence Forces

Sir, – Most commentators with an understanding of the Constitution agree that the general limits on a serving president’s freedom of speech are more imagined than real. Although convention suggests political continence, the Constitution itself has little to say about what a president can or cannot say, except in relation to specified forms of address.

Dr David Kenny seems concerned that, by speaking out on certain issues, President Michael D Higgins may be undermining his credibility if and when he is compelled to exercise either of two absolute discretions provided for in the Constitution – to refer a Bill to the Supreme Court or to refuse a dissolution of Dáil Éireann ("President's comments on Defence Forces pay crossed the line", Opinion & Analysis, September 18th).

Without expressing a view on whether or not the President’s comments on the issue of the welfare of members of the Defence Forces “crossed a line”, it is not at all clear how expressing views on any matter deemed “political” undermines his capacity to exercise discretionary powers with credibility. As the office has evolved over time, the “softer” functions of the presidency are, arguably, more important than its absolute discretions. It can be argued convincingly that a president who acts and speaks with good authority, and does not affect a faux-neutrality on issues deemed “political”, adds to the credibility of that office-holder in the event that she or he is required to exercise an absolute discretion.

The idea that the president is some kind of political eunuch serving only a ceremonial purpose is based more on a monarchical than on a republican model of head of state and is not something that those who voted for the current President had in mind when they voted – overwhelmingly – for him.


The constitutional lines that President Higgins is routinely accused of crossing are not bright lines, nor should they be. – Yours, etc,



School of Law,

NUI Galway.

A chara, – David Kenny criticises the decision of President Michael D Higgins to speak out on the issue of pay in the Defence Forces.

Given that members of the armed services cannot join a union, there is a special responsibility on the State to ensure they are fairly rewarded, and particularly on the President, as their nominal Supreme Commander.

The recent decline in numbers in the Defence Forces numbers, and the difficulty in recruiting adequate replacements, indicate we have a problem there; although that may in turn be caused at least partly by full employment and pay increases available in other parts of the economy.

But the pay rates quoted in the article do not seem especially bad if the armed services are also provided with adequate accommodation, meals, clothing, commuting and other expenses other employees have to bear out of their take-home pay.

The last time I had the opportunity to check, however, accommodation standards were awful, especially for the more junior ranks.

So the problem and the solution might not simply be increased pay rates, but better accommodation, facilities, services, benefits, equipment, training and personal development and promotional opportunities which will not necessarily result in further knock-on claims in the rest of the public service.

President Higgins is right to call attention to the fact that there is a problem, but it is for the Government to decide what the most effective solution might be.

David Kenny is being overly precious in seeking to deny the President the right to speak out on the issue.

The Defence Forces deserve the President’s support, and what the Constitution does not expressly forbid is allowed, subject to the discretion and judgment we have elected Mr Higgins for in the first place. – Yours, etc,



Co Wicklow.

Sir, – David Kenny’s article criticising the President for commenting on a “political issue” plays into the hands of those who are indifferent to the current retention crisis in the Defence Forces.

In reality, everything is political. As a former German defence minister once commented in a defence debate, “Even a glass of water is political”. If the President were to avoid every political issue, he would have to remain silent.

By crossing this line, he is rightly giving his moral support to the campaign being conducted by veterans and families of serving personnel in the Defence Forces.

Moreover, his comments are consistent with his constitutional role as Supreme Commander of the Defence Forces. – Yours, etc,


(Colonel, retired)


Co Meath.

Sir, – In his capacity as Uachtarán na hÉireann, Michael D Higgins has gained a reputation for pushing the envelope; his recent comments about pay in the Defence Forces, and the dangers of workers being exploited by a “race to the bottom” in new forms of working conditions, and his call for the introduction of new measures to prevent employees from being exploited by unscrupulous employers, and his latest public address at the National Ploughing Championships, in which he called for support for Irish farm families, are cases in point.

I suspect some Fine Gael Ministers and a lot of party stalwarts regard Michael D as a bit of a loose cannon: a President with a penchant for shooting from the hip. They would contend that a president should not court controversy by delivering cogent and thought-provoking speeches.

But there’s as much chance of gagging the great humanitarian as there is of capturing a unicorn. – Yours, etc,



Co Dublin.