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Column: We have a president with an opinion, what's the big deal?

Michael D Higgins won the Irish presidential elections based on his vision of a ‘radically inclusive Republic’. So how could anyone be surprised about him elaborating on that vision, asks Maura Adshead.

Maura Adshead

ARTICLE 15.1.2 OF the constitution of Ireland declares that executive authority resides with the Oireachtas, comprising the President, the Dáil and the Seanad. The president is elected by universal adult suffrage for a seven-year term, following their nomination either by at least 20 members of the Houses of the Oireachtas or by at least four county or county borough councils.

This effectively ensures that, despite the popular vote for election, all would-be candidates need the support of one of the main parties or some combination of the smaller ones. Added to this, as the rest of the constitution makes quite clear, executive authority is vested directly with the government. Even though Article 12.1 states that the office of President takes ‘precedence over all other persons in the state’, it was clearly not intended that the president would have much of a role in the day-to-day politics of the state.

Appearances can be deceptive

Instead, it seems that de Valera intended the office of President to be something of a ‘reserve power’, ‘intervening on the people’s behalf only if government or parliament appeared to be threatening to violate the letter or spirit of the constitution’. But even so, the discretionary powers afforded to the president fall far short of those needed if his or her role were genuinely to guard the constitution or prevent the government or Oireachtas attempting to set up a dictator. According to this logic, the office of the Irish President is a weak and ceremonial position, largely constrained by party politics and with no real power. And yet, appearances can be deceptive.

Mary Robinson, who accepted the Labour party’s nomination on the condition that she stand as an independent, and won the first presidential election in 17 years, is widely credited with changing how we understand the role of Irish President. Robinson, who was a constitutional lawyer and expert herself, explained how she had come to understand the role of the president by examining the terms of the office as set out in the Irish constitution.

Robinson recognised the importance of political symbolism

“When I looked and saw that, unusually, in the Irish constitution the President – although not political – is elected by the people as their choice… this opened up a means to be close to the people and represent all those other things that matter,” she said. In this respect, Robinson realised the power of political symbolism and pushed it to its limits, directly in her own embodiment as president, and indirectly in the work that she chose to do as president.

In terms of her own symbolic value, her election was widely viewed – by Irish political practitioners and commentators alike – as of enormous symbolic value. Upon taking office at the age of 47, Mary Robinson was a young, professional woman holding the highest office of the state. She is a practising Catholic, married to a Protestant.

Her CV includes independent membership of the Seanad, Professor of Law at Trinity College Dublin, and extensive experience as a practising constitutional lawyer – seeking to liberalise contraception laws, advance women’s rights, decriminalise homosexuality and, opposing the insertion of an anti-abortion clause into the Constitution in 1983. She supported the unsuccessful attempt to remove the ban on divorce in 1986. The widespread and enthusiastic support for Mary Robinson was indicative of a developing self-image in Ireland: that of a modernising state, beginning to acknowledge diversity of tradition, religion, and values across the island.

The ‘bridge building’ presidential theme of McAleese

The projection of Ireland as a pluralist, secular and inclusive state was as much a consequence of the presidential work that she did as it was of her own person. Previously excluded, marginalised and disadvantaged groups were imbued with importance when visited by the president. During Robinson’s term of office, the presidential diary became much more crowded and she was credited with reinvigorating the role.

According to the constitutional lawyer, Gwyn Morgan, in all but the most obviously political areas, Robinson left it up to the government to intervene or not, leaving them with the onus of ‘either being seen to instruct the presidency or of accepting whatever the president chose to do’. This symbolic style to the presidential office was further developed by her successor, Mary McAleese, whose ‘bridge building’ presidential theme was conclusively cemented by the historic visit of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland.

Certainly, in the two decades since the two Marys took up the office, the chief significance of the presidency has come to be seen much more explicitly in terms of the ways in which our head of state embodies, represents and reflects core values that we want associated with Ireland. And in this respect we can see some significant evolution in the role of the Irish presidency.

The projection of core Irish values

In the last presidential election, we no longer needed to look for implicit and unstated messages that our would-be presidents might convey, by their dress code, gender, lifestyle or domestic arrangements. Quite the opposite: our would-be presidents were happy to package them as the cornerstone of their presidential campaigns.

In fact, during the last presidential campaign, it became abundantly clear that the most significant role for an Irish president is the projection of core Irish values: the presidential competition was an exercise in debating what exactly these should be.

Michael D Higgins, who won with the biggest vote in the history of Irish presidential elections, argued that the role of president was all about ‘hope and creativity’ in a ‘radically inclusive republic’. And so, really, should anyone be surprised when he took the opportunity to elaborate on that vision when invited to do so by the Financial Times? His thoughts developed themes that he had already articulated in his speech to the European Parliament two weeks before.

Moral and social discourse on the eurozone crisis

There was no political controversy then, so presumably President Higgins concluded that he was not pushing the Irish government beyond its comfort zone. In both addresses, he argued that Europe needs a moral and social discourse to match the technical discussion of eurozone problems. On a technicality at least, he cannot stand accused of commenting on government policy – given that there is very little in the way of moral and social discourse about eurozone problems, here or in wider Europe. Perhaps that is the kind of hope and creativity he was referring to in his election campaign.

More concretely, he argued that Europe’s current ‘hegemonic model’ fails to distinguish between the different types of economic difficulties experienced in different European states. Without doubt, on this point the Irish government must most surely agree.

In fact, on this point, many other European states and economists also agree – as did the FT’s own editorial the following day. Few, however, find themselves in a position to articulate this reasoned call for reconsideration. Least of all the Irish government, as it tries to negotiate the implementation of its bailout conditions in ever more constricted circumstances. In this respect, an independent president, with a close connection to his people, and a direct popular mandate to speak on their behalf, might be just exactly what was required.

Maura Adshead is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and Public Administration at the University of Limerick. To read more articles by Maura for TheJournal.ie, click here.

Read: Michael D: ‘The EU will become illegitimate without economic reform’>

Poll: Has President Michael D Higgins crossed the line by criticising Europe?>

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Maura Adshead

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