Do normal people care what the Irish presidency is for?

I cannot think of another Head of State’s office where there is sometimes no competitive election, given a popular incumbent. It sort of happens because, like much else in the Irish state, it is in the gift of the country’s political class as to whether it is worth holding an election, or not.

This is partly what’s been going on with Fianna Fail’s no show this time round. No chance of winning, no point running. Mary Regan in the Irish Examiner:

The question a lot of people will be thinking when this election truly gets underway is whether we want the President to “butt out” of anything meaningful or pertinent to our country’s future, or whether we want a political player who can change it for the better.

The last three presidential ‘terms’ takes us the whole way back to the term of three Presidents (Childers, O’Dalaigh, Hillary) which began in 1973. Indeed, one step back from that and Dev takes us back almost 52 years to 1959.

It’s not that the office doesn’t have significance, at least at the right moment, as Mrs McAleese proved during the Queen’s recent state visit, it can powerfully underscore the hard won independence of the state. And the last two female  presidents have shown that, with the right vision, it can have a very high public profile.

Perhaps it could be tweaked, as Mary Kenny suggests, so that it is not just another in house party political concern:

The role of the president could be more economically organised, and the procedure could be made more open and less party-political: why not allow anyone who has the support of 20,000 citizens to stand, instead of needing the endorsement of 20 Oireachtas members or four county councils?

But as Conor Pope (no, not that one) notes, most normal people don’t care about politics

  • Oh I think people DO care.
    I suspect an t-Uachtarán is respected by many more Irish people than any leader of any Party. True we tend to get (recent) good Presidents in spite of the stranglehold that the political class has on the nominations.
    Mary Robinson was the darling of the Dublin left. Mary McAleese wasnt.
    But they actually got voted by real people, not just the political class and the chattering classes in Dublin 4.

    Alas the front runner this time sabotaged his own prospects so much that the remaining “field” has been declared null and void.
    People DO care.
    A President is elected by the People.
    It seems a better way of doing things than the alternative favoured by our nearest neighbour…..where the Head of State is “hereditary”.

  • pippakin

    Surely the Irish Presidential election, being the only election here that doesn’t effect individual constituencies, is not only important for its own sake but can legitimately be extended to the Diaspora and the north?

    I think the last two incumbents have increased the profile of the office and shown that its possible to achieve even with both hands tied behind your back.

  • Charminator

    Hmm, I’m actually not sure about this one. It’s clear people do care in some form, but where I’m probably more inclined to agree with Mick is that, they don’t care enough.

    At the end of the day, I’m going to hazard a guess that most people recognise the severe limitations on the role of the president and accept that its function is to “try” to provide some higher sense of National identity, perhaps “personify” Ireland. The two Marys did this well: Robinson reaching out to our diaspora, whilst McAleese reached out to our “diaspora” at home, the long decoupled communities of the North. In fact, given the decade of anniversaries we’re now facing into McAleese was arguably one term too soon: she would probably have been the perfect president to see us through the coming years of the anniversaries of the founding of the Volunteers (both sets), the Somme, the Rising etc.

    I’m not sure how we fix the “not caring enough” feeling about the presidency either. Greater popular input might work, but we’re still left with the reality that the office lacks any political power – not in the grubby sense, but in the sense of the capacity to actually change (ie improve) people’s lives.

    The presidency – to many – seems to be the moral balsam of our constitutional system, devoid of any real political power, but by so being, capable of embodying an Ireland beyond politics and retaining confidence throughout extraordinarily long terms (eg as evidenced by consistent high popularity of incumbents).

  • I think theres a massive difference between Presidential campaigns and the election of the President.
    In a very simple gesture Gay Byrne began the Late Late Show by raising a glass and saying “So heres to you Mrs Robinson” and from that moment after at times a nasty campaign, she was the President.
    I would also recall that the five candidates (four women, one man) in 1997 stood on the stage as the results were announced and I had the feeling that they represented the “best” of Ireland. Adi Roche had a record in humane charity work, Dana represented a religios perspective which not many would support, Derek Nally was like the man with the lamp looking for just one honest man. Of course I would never in a million years vote for a Blueshirt but Mary Banotti had a record in public service (as indeed had her family).
    Together with Mary McAleese they represented something that was a cumulative good (not of course to Dublin 4s taste then or the Blaggerspheres in 2011).

    I think only begrudgers would try and claim that our President has not been a success.
    Indeed criticising a President in Office as Donegan did is something that does not sit well.
    The Diaspora electing a President?
    They certainly should have a role to play and it is the policy of both nationalist Parties in Norn Iron. But of course recent Presidents have had Northerners in the Council of State. Admittedly some choices are downright bad.

  • Henry94

    The last two Presidential elections told us something about ourselves. Mary Robinson’s election marked the liberal ascendancy and the Mary McAleese election told northern nationalists that they were always family if anyone doubted it.

    With Norris out of it there isn’t much we can say about ourselves this time. The two government parties have nominated someone from the left of Labour and the right of FG.

    Fianna Fail have at least understood that we don’t want to hear from them yet if ever.

    But we need someone who will take on opposition position on the bank bailout and let the people have their say on it. Of course the president has no power on the issue but an expression from the people on the subject has moral power. Only Sinn Fein can offer us such a candidate now.

  • Charminator

    Henry94:

    I agree with your take on the president helping to develop our sense of who we are as a people and Nation.

    I cannot, however, agree that having a president with political (with a capital P) views on an issue as contentious as the bank bailout is desirable or constitutionally permissible. When the “public purse” is involved, that’s a matter for the Dáil alone (they are, remember, the people’s representatives too) and for this reason the constitution properly limits the Seanad’s authority in this respect too.

    Irrespective of the party political endorsement of the next president, I certainly hope that aside from the many issues already plaguing the country, we do not have to add to the list that of a constitutional crisis with the president openly defying the political policies of the government of the day (irrespective of the composition of that government over the next seven years). That would be a constitutional nightmare.

    If a party wishes to plot a different course with respect to fiscal matters, then it must be Government Buildings they set their sights on, not Áras an Uachtaráin.

  • huntsman

    I cannot think of another Head of State’s office where there is sometimes no competitive election, given a popular incumbent. It sort of happens because, like much else in the Irish state, it is in the gift of the country’s political class as to whether it is worth holding an election, or not.

    What a load of claptrap. In the bulk of European countries, the President is voted in by the Parliament or they have herititary heads of State. No need for the cringe Mick. The people of the South are very lucky to have a vote in deciding who is their head of State. Those of us who once lived in “part of the United Kingdom” had no such privilage.

  • Henry94

    Charminator

    I’m not suggesting the President should do anything once elected. But a candidate is not a President and the people can use the election to make a statement.

    We are faced with an unusual situation in that the two leading candidates are government candidates. That implies a consensus on our very serious situation that does not actually exist. SF are in the position to offer a dissenting view and open up a macro-debate about our priorities and our relationship with Europe. The campaigin will be very remote from the concerns of the people without that debate.

  • Mick Fealty

    Interesting Henry. How would describe statement made by O’Kelly and Childers?

  • Henry94

    Mick,

    I’m not sure what you are asking me there Mick.

    Anyway on a lighter note the remote possibility of Mickey Harte and Mary Lou McDonald contesting the Sinn Fein nomination would give headline writers an easy score assuming Marly Lou won

    Hello Mary Lou, goodbye Harte.