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FactCheck: Who got it right between Higgins and Ní Riada in the debate over speaking rights?

The debate was over the rights of presidents to address the Oireachtas.

factcheck

SATURDAY’S RADIO DEBATE between the six presidential candidates threw up a whole host of interesting questions.

There were some hypothetical questions about what the candidates would do as president, but there were also some disagreements about how the presidency should be conducted.

One such disagreement was between President Michael D Higgins and Liadh Ni Riada MEP on the practice of presidents addressing the Houses of the Oireachtas.

The Sinn Féin candidate said she felt there has been “a failure to address the Houses of the Oireachtas” by the current president, adding that she would exercise this right more frequently.

Higgins defended not doing so during his seven years, arguing that any such address would require government approval.

“I’ve given many speeches in the last seven years, and I’ve put a lot of myself into them,” President Higgins said.

The one speech that you’ve no control over is in fact the one you give in the Oireachtas. Because it has to go through the Council of State.

Ní Riada said Mary McAleese and Mary Robinson had given speeches to the Oireachtas, claiming that they had “pushed the boundaries” in doing so.

Higgins then said: “The text of your speech to the joint Houses of the Oireachtas has to be approved by government. And that was the case in both of the previous presidents that were referred to.”

“I would dispute that,” Ní Riada responded.

hig President Michael D Higgins and Liadh Ní Riada MEP during Saturday's RTÉ debate. Source: RTÉ Player

The MEP also said that as president she would have addressed the Oireachtas on “the awful issue of homelessness” and “on Palestine”.

This prompted Higgins to interject once more and the two had the following disagreement:

Higgins: The government will have approved your speech.

Ní Riada: The haven’t always approved your speech.

Higgins: Yes they have.

So who was right in this dispute?

Claims: 1) The government is required to approve a president’s speech to the Oireachtas.

2) Governments have always done so.

debate 242_90556332 President Michael D Higgins. Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

The facts

The right of the President to address the Oireachtas is contained under Article 13.7 of the Constitution and it has only been invoked four times.

Once by Éamon de Valera in 1966, twice by Mary Robinson (1992 and 1995) and once by Mary McAleese (1999).

Article 13.7 has three parts and it reads:

1. The President may, after consultation with the Council of State, communicate with the Houses of the Oireachtas by message or address on any matter of national or public importance.

2. The President may, after consultation with the Council of State, address a message to the nation at any time on any such matter.

3. Every such message or address must, however, have received the approval of the government.

Article 13.7.3 of the Constitution clearly states that any address given by the President to the Oireachtas must have received the approval of government.

Asked by TheJournal.ie about the dispute involving Ní Riada and Higgins, the Campaign To Re-elect Michael D Higgins pointed to this section of the Constitution.

Sinn Féin was also asked a number of queries but responses were not were received on time of publication. However, during the Claire Byrne Live debate last night, Ní Riada did seem to concede that the government would have to be given speeches prior to them being made in the house. 

debate 190_90556334 Liadh Ni Riada after attending the RTÉ radio debate. Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

TheJournal.ie also spoke to Eoin Daly, constitutional law lecturer at NUI Galway, who agreed that there is no confusion over whether approval is needed.

“Common sense would seem to dictate that the third subsection applies both to addresses given either to the nation or to the Houses of the Oireachtas. Therefore, addresses given to the Houses of the Oireachtas must be approved by the government,” he said.

It may waive its right, it may decline its right to scrutinise or censor what the president says, and there have been a lot of variation over the decades of how closely it does exercise that right, but it does have that right.

“There’s certainly no ambiguity on the central point, that an address to the Houses of the Oireachtas must have received the approval of the government. The government might decline to exercise that right but it must be referred to the government.”

00007398_7398 President Mary McAleese addresses the Oireachtas on the eve of the new millennium in December 1999. Source: RollingNews.ie

Without a response from Ní Riada on her claim that governments haven’t always actually approved such speeches, it’s difficult to surmise exactly what she is referring to.

“I couldn’t specifically address that point about whether the government approved every one of those but I would be surprised if those speeches hadn’t been submitted to the government,” Daly says when asked this question.

Whether the government actually exercises the right to scrutinise it, is another question. But if the president were to address the Oireachtas without referring the content of their speech first to the government I think then that that wouldn’t be consistent with Article 13.7.

Verdicts: 1) The constitution clearly states that governments must approve speeches by the president to the Oireachtas.

2) There is no evidence disputing that governments have always done so.

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here

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About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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