Visions for the next presidency notable for their absence
The presidency is a critical role that balances soft power and expert political knowledge
President Michael D Higgins with two former presidents, Mary McAleese and Mary Robinson, at Áras an Uachtaráin in 2013. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Among all the talk this week about who will or will not contest a presidential election and whether parties will support them, very little has been said about the presidency itself and the purposes to which it might be put for the next seven years. Even though some of the aspirants have been thinking and talking about running for months, many have not as of yet articulated a vision for the office itself or exhibited any real understanding of its powers and importance.
The presidency is the most interesting and potentially most significant office in our carefully framed constitutional system.
It is an office from which extraordinary things can be done to shape and inform national debate and to give voice to our diversity.
The presidential diary, the standing of the incumbent and the facilities of the Áras itself are among the armoury of the phenomenal soft power that a well-thought-out presidency can exercise. The week in, week out task of selecting how and with whom to spend time enables a president to give real life to his or her themes. A good president carefully chooses which people or organisations should have their work endorsed, encouraged and embraced by the power of presidential participation and support.
Hundreds of communities, whether geographic or sectoral, delight in hosting the first citizen on special occasions. The best presidential initiatives often involve reaching out to those who might assume themselves excluded from the invite list. One thinks, for example, of Mary Robinson’s important work in the mid 1990s with Traveller organisations and with the LGBT community.
The most powerful presidential outreach is done quietly and discreetly, away from the media gaze; none more powerfully than Mary McAleese’s careful engagement with a cross-section of Northern Irish society at the most delicate moments of our peace process.
For all that soft power, however, being president and being elected president is not akin to heading up an NGO. Indeed it is striking that two of the most impressive people ever to lead nongovernmental organisations in this country, Mary Davis and Adi Roche, were unfairly brutalised in presidential election contests.
The representative role our presidents fulfil is also significant. We have been blessed with extremely competent and articulate presidents, of whom we at home and our diaspora abroad have had every reason to be proud. They have reflected us extremely well, not only in giving expression to where our country is at, but also in their dignified sense of how to walk the careful boundaries in our relationship with other countries and in our membership of international organisations.
Helping to chart an appropriately diplomatic yet assertive course in our relationship with the United Kingdom in the early post-Brexit period will be a key task for the next presidential term.
So too will framing debate about the altered relationships on this island. There is every possibility that talk of a united Ireland will be a central theme of our politics towards the end of the next presidential term. That’s a discussion that cannot be abandoned solely to demographic forces or to be exploited by any individual political party.
The presidency also plays an important role in representing our interest in foreign investment, in tourism and in foreign trade. While nobody wants the presidency to be abused in hawking our national wares, it is both inevitable and appropriate given our status as the most open of economies that the president play a role in advocating for and showcasing the best of our modern dynamic, young and highly educated economy.
We should also remember that some important if rarely exercised constitutional powers are also vested in the presidency. Knowing when to exercise or not to exercise the power to refer legislation to the Supreme Court before enactment or to refuse a dissolution to a taoiseach who doesn’t have a Dáil majority requires careful judgment.
A sophisticated knowledge of and experience in our political system and a subtle understanding of our Constitution and its potential should be seen as prerequisites for the job . All our presidents to date have been either former holders of public office and/or substantial lawyers. Mary Robinson was both. Mary McAleese had the latter and what she lacked in the former was more than compensated for by decades of engagement as an influential voice of and in moderate nationalism.
Our confidence in Michael D Higgins as president to exercise these powers judiciously if the need had arisen during the lengthy hiatus after the last general election was informed by his long experience in our politics and his independent mindset.
Mary McAleese once described how the presidency requires someone with “a warm heart and a cool head”. Each is as important as the other.