Martin McGuinness plans to take a new broom to ‘pacific’ Aras tradition…

Áras an Uachtaráin - residence of the Irish President, and soon to be home to Northern Irish beesI think this is well worth noting. Too many, it seems to me are presuming things about the Irish Presidency which rely on tradition (not least the one that says Fianna Fail’s guiding hand must be on all, but one, incumbent) but are not actually written into the Constitution.

Martin McGuinness takes the trouble to point out what some of his plans are, should he be lucky enough to win the race to the Aras:

“There have been some suggestions made by Government Ministers that the role of the President is to act as a spokesperson for the government, particularly in oversees engagements. This is not the role of the President. Those comments illustrate why we need a president who is independent of Government. Indeed they demonstrate a misunderstanding of the role of president.

“If elected as Uachtaran na hEireann my foremost concern will be to uphold the constitution – to be a people’s president by putting the people’s interest first. I will uphold the constitution, stand up for Ireland and stand up for Irish sovereignty.

“What the people of Ireland need is a president who will not respond to pressure from government to ignore his or her constitutional obligations – for example the dissolution of the Dáil or the reference of constitutionally questionable bills to the Supreme Court. I will be in the people’s corner – not the governments.

As for that great steal from the Constitution on needing the permission from Enda to go home to Derry by Newton… It would not be smart for any future President to breach that provision (with the purposes of embarrassing the government over the national question) without being held to have violated the Constitution it would be his burden to protect.

The larger prize is the privilege the Constitution confers upon the President to speak to the nation in over matters more pressing to those who actually live in the south in a manner calculated to substantially enhance his authority over the grave economic and political matters facing the Republic of Ireland.

Adds: Great minds think alike

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  • sonofstrongbow

    Who are the “people” MCGuinness will champion? How will he decide what are their concerns?

    McGuinness is obviously intent on being a political president using the office to advance the Sinn Fein agenda.

    Does the saying buying a pig in a poke translate down south? I hope not I want him to win. The craic will be ninety!

  • sonof….Marty’s chances will be surely boosted by the refusal of Cork to support Norris, as i’ve read in the BBC teletext a while ago.

  • Rory Carr

    “What the people of Ireland need is a president who will not respond to pressure from government to ignore his or her constitutional obligations – for example the dissolution of the Dáil or the reference of constitutionally questionable bills to the Supreme Court. I will be in the people’s corner – not the governments.”

    Damn! I’ve been waiting to hear a presidential candidate with the cojones to take such a stand ever since the disgraceful defenestration of President Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh at the hands of that unholy pair, Liam Cosgrave and Conor Cruise O’Brien who refused to back their President when he was publicly insulted by Defence Minister, Paddy Donegan who blamed he IRA’s shooting of a Garda in Mountmellick on the President’s quite proper insistence on referring the proposed Emergency Powers legislation to the Supreme Court.

    It is especially satisfying to hear this challenge on the people’s behalf being made while yet another unholy alliance holds the reins of power in Dáil Eíreánn .

  • Charminator

    These latest comments are, from a constitutional perspective, more than a little concerning. Bunreacht na hÉireann could hardly be much clearer in circumscribing even the President’s official functions. Article 13.9 and 13.11 are very clear in circumscribing the President’s functions: they are to be exercised, except in very specific scenarios, only on the advice of the Government.

    Whilst I am not overly concerned by the trawling of history as a reason to believe McGuinness is ill-suited to the Presidency, I am, on the other hand, quite concerned by the prospect of a constitutional crisis. I cannot help but wonder whether some strategists in SF are viewing the Presidency as something of a shortcut to influencing policy, rather than having to satisfy the far more onerous challenge of winning a majority in Dáil Éireann. When McGuinness speaks of the People, it is important to remember, first and foremost, that by far the most accurate democratic barometer of the People’s sense is Dáil Éireann. With one TD for approximately every 30,000 people (as constitutionally mandated), Dáil Éireann is rightly the true voice of the People. It is therefore extremely concerning if some feel that the constructive ambiguity which animated much of the peace process can similarly be extended to interpreting the appropriate functions and roles of institutions in the State.

    If some feel the Presidency is a tool or device for opposing democratically sanctioned policies or programmes of the Government of the day, then I think we’re in for some constitutionally challenging times ahead. It is not, and even under the most laboured construction of Article 13, it is difficult to accord any “policy influencing” role to the President, without doing serious violence to the fabric of Bunreacht na hÉireann’s constitutional scheme. The President’s powers are few. And they are few for good reason: the Constitution does not seek to diminish the democratic primacy of Dáil Éireann.

  • Newton’s bit about permission to leave the state came up in relation to Mary McAleese. I’ve mentioned it several times over the years and the Examiner drew attention to it about a month ago.

    Over and above the context of the election process, presidents have very few constitutional powers of which to avail. Indeed, so limited are these powers that a populist, reformist or even mildly independent-minded president would soon come up against the constraints of the office. .. All told, presidents themselves have usually steered clear from taking any action that runs the risk of creating political controversy. More than that, on occasion governments have advised presidents to refrain from certain activities. Thus, in 1991 the government asked President Robinson not to deliver the Dimbleby Lecture in London, and in 1993 it asked her to decline to chair a Ford Foundation committee on the future of the United Nations, as mentioned above; on each occasion the President accepted this advice without forcing a confrontation (O’Leary and Burke, 1998, pp. 153, 220-2). source DOC file

  • Mick Fealty

    Pointed out at Broadsheet:

    “9. The powers and functions conferred on the President by this Constitution shall be exercisable and performable by him only on the advice of the Government, save where it is provided by this Constitution that he shall act in his absolute discretion or after consultation with or in relation to the Council of State, or on the advice or nomination of, or on receipt of any other communication from, any other person or body.
    10. Subject to this Constitution, additional powers and functions may be conferred on the President by law.
    11. No power or function conferred on the President by law shall be exercisable or performable by him save only on the advice of the Government.”

    So, freeman or prisoner is it?

  • Alias

    “So, freeman or prisoner is it?”

    Just spin by Marty.

    For example, the slogan “the peoples’ president” is meaningless as a deliniator from the other candidates since the president “shall be elected by direct vote of the people” and is there “the peoples’ president” by default. In reality, the president is not equal to the people but constitutionally elevated above them as he “shall take precedence over all other persons in the State.” (Article 12).

    The other spin is that the bold Marty won’t be a spokesman for the government whereas the other candidates, it is implied, will be. In reality, the president never acted as a spokesman for the government and no such role is conferred upon that office in the Constitution, so Marty is just an emtpy tin can making noise.

  • Charminator

    Good point Mick – and, as you’ll see, precisely the limitations I referred to above.

    I don’t quite agree that it’s quite as simple as a prisoner / freeman dichotomy, largely because we’ve never found ourselves sailing so close to friction between the Government and the President. But theoretically a President could, for example, REFUSE to attend a commemoration, such as 1916 centenary, if his/her views were not taken into account by the Government. This, in itself, represents considerable political leverage. He or she could similarly REFUSE to attend other significant events. He or she could become quite obstructionist with a Government’s legislative agenda too. The powers of the President – or at least those which can be inferred, as much as anything, by the refusal to exercise certain functions – have never been tested to the limit. Why? Because a certain consensus – and one which I, like others, consider consistent with the Constitution – has developed which has placed the Presidency beyond day-to-day politics and has resulted in Presidential deference to the will of the Government (due to the Government’s mandate in Dáil Éireann).

    The Presidency has never been occupied by a man who is driven by politics in quite the way that McGuinness surely is (or at least not at the height of their political prime, rather than as a retirement home, eg Dev). This is new territory. It’s not territory I would hope we find ourselves threading too deeply into because frankly I think it can only end in a constitutional crisis, but it would be especially unfortunate if any candidates concerned viewed the Presidency as a short-cut to influencing policy by avoiding the challenging task of obtaining a Dáil majority to pursue their particular political agenda.

  • dodrade

    Is there any other state where an elected president is effectively a prisoner of the prime minister?

    And what is the point of having (at some expense) elections contested by (mostly) politically partisan candidates which confer a direct mandate from the people (whereas that of the Taoiseach comes merely from the Dail) when the constitution renders them almost powerless puppets of the Government? In practice the position is so little different to that of Governor-General I wonder why De Valera bothered changing it in the first place, especially as the King was still head of state until 1949.

  • Charminator


    He’s not a prisoner, as you say – a President retains some important functions which can exert influence on political decision-making.

    For example, if a President sent five bills in a row to the Supreme Court to attest their constitutionality, would that obstruct the Government’s legislative agenda? Yes. Would it present a significant headache. Yes. If the President declined an invitation to lead certain National commemorations, such as the 1916 centenary due to a concern about the historical narrative the Government wished to present, would that prove highly embarrassing and challenging for a Government? Yes.

    The reality, as I state above, is that whilst we’re aware of the obvious limitations of the Presidency, we cannot be certain where exactly the contours lie because the Presidency has never been tested to the limit. It has never actually been occupied by a person with a vision to using it as an engine for serious political influence. Where a McGuinness Presidency would lead us, in this respect, we can only speculate…. for what it’s worth, I think we would have constitutional crisis, sooner or later, if McGuinness tries to use the Presidency as a counterpoint to the Government.

    Also, your point regarding the President’s democratic legitimacy as opposed to that of the Government based on Dáil Éireann misses the point. Dáil Éireann represents every 30,000 – a remarkably democratic organ giving voice to the State in all its diversity. The Taoiseach and the Government’s authority rests entirely on the confidence of Dáil Éireann which, as I say, is drawn from multiple votes across multiple constituencies. The President’s authority is not at all so closely attuned to local democratic accountability, but rather based on one State-wide poll, not the endorsement of local communities the length and breadth of Ireland, as any Taoiseach needs. Essentially it is the essence of a parliamentary, as opposed to presidential model of accountability.

    On an historical point: the 1949 date is wrong from the perspective of the Irish State. The Irish State did not recognise the King as having any continuing role in Ireland after Bunreacht na hÉireann was enacted.

  • Alias

    Charm, the president has no policy-making or executive role. While what you say is possible in theory, in practice he would be impeached for trying to influence executive policy without a mandate.

    The only real concern is that the president has the power to pardon criminals or comute their sentences. Given that Marty is answerable to his boss on PIRA’s AC, who happens to be Thomas Murphy, there will be plenty of opportunities there for Marty to be of use to those who are engaged in organised crime in the State.

    Beyond that, Marty could be expected to abuse the office to promote other agendas.

    Declaring that he isn’t going to be a spokesman for the government means nothing since no president ever was a spokesman, and that isn’t the same statement as declaring he is going to use the office as an unofficial opposition.

  • Glad I took that photo on the afternoon of the 12th of July this year! Who would have thought there’d be so much interest in the next keeper of the presidential (northern) bees! Hope someone asks about apple harvesting and honey-making skills at the presidential debates.

    (Now off to yellow card myself for diverting the post off topic …)

  • Alias

    And well done for getting the tricolour in shot.

    There isn’t any need for an office of president, so I’d like to see it dismantled in any reform of the Oireachtas (along with the Seanad) – preferably just after Marty moves his furniture in.

    For example, it isn’t necessary for a president to ask the Supreme Court to test the constitutionality of a law since the citizens can do that after it is enacted or the Attorney General could ask the Supreme Court to test the constitutionality before it is enacted. Besides, none of the present candidates are qualified to perform that function, so it would be more sensible to transfer that function to an office where the holder is suitably qualified.

  • Rory Carr

    “The Presidency has never been occupied by a man who is driven by politics in quite the way that McGuinness surely is…” – Charminator.

    A president who would be alert on behalf of the people to any attempt by government to pursue an agenda that might infringe constitutional liberties is no no more or less ‘political’ than one who would be quiescently tolerant of all that a government would do regardless.

    The question that citizens must ask themselves is which of these presidents would it be preferable to have as a bulwark for the public good.

  • Reader

    Rory Carr: The question that citizens must ask themselves…
    …seems to be purely hypothetical. So far as I can see all of the candidates would claim to be “alert on behalf of the people”. The problem is, which of them can be trusted to do that? And are there some that can’t be trusted at all?

  • Cynic2

    “The question that citizens must ask themselves is which of these presidents would it be preferable to have as a bulwark for the public good.”

    Absolutely. Does the Republic need a President who has all their mental faculties or one who seems to show signs of early onset Alzheimers and has forgotten what he was doing for most of the last 35 years?

    Is it something in the SF water supply? That’s two senior figures afflicted by their terrible disease. I fear it will become an epidemic

  • “as a bulwark for the public good”

    Well, Rory, you seem to have taken Martin out with that low tackle 🙂

  • Comical Marty rides again: “Martin McGuinness: I am the epitome of first-class citizenship” as he inhales his own propaganda.

    Not for him the Irish state: “I want to use my international reputation for the benefit of all the people of Ireland.”.

  • Neville Bagnall

    The only surprise here is the idea that any of the candidates would fail in their constitutional duties.

    But being a guardian of the constitution is not the same thing as being a political President and if (presuming he gets elected) McGuinness can’t distinguish between the two, then I think he will be more likely to be an unpopular President than cause a constitutional crisis.

    In relation to the power to refer bills, remember that the power is only to refer; the Court decides, as in cases brought by any citizen.
    The only President who did not refer at least one Bill is Erskine Childers, and he died early in office, so I hardly see any pre-existing sign of passivity.
    Plus the power is a double edged sword. If referred and found constitutional, the bill can never be challenged again by any citizen. In some ways, referral can act to copper-fasten a constitutional Bill rather than weaken it. Perhaps even too much.

    Addresses to the Nation or Oireacthas require government approval, and if political enough to be refused will leak anyway. Not to say they could easily backfire. At most they can put an issue on the agenda, but beyond that are unlikely to change many minds that can’t be swayed by normal political discourse.

    Convening the Oireachtas, or refusing a dissolution are important backstops to maintain parliamentary control of the executive but, like the power to refer, merely allows another institution of the state perform its own constitutional duty.

    Frankly, I don’t want a political President. In the same way as I don’t want political policing, political courts or a political public and civil service. For me, the President is First Citizen, and head of our civic society, not our polity or our economy.

    But I do want an active President. To me, that means a President with an agenda that is outside the normal scope of party politics. That has mainly been an “inclusion agenda” for the last couple of decades and I think there is still plenty of scope in that, but it may be something else or more. I look forward to the candidates setting out their vision.

  • Charminator

    Thanks Alias.

    I think it would be naïve to think that an obdurate President could simply just be impeached (a two-thirds majority in both Houses of the Oireachtas is no easy threshold!).

    What I’m suggesting McGuinness – or any like-minded individual might well do – is press their political agenda at every single turn. That can be done. It can be done by refusing to attend functions. By stalling the Government’s legislative agenda by throwing the Bill into the long grass of the Supreme Court. In fact, there is some precedent for such behaviour. MacNeill and Dev had a very terse relationship indeed: Dev won out. But just because we’ve never seen such a testy relationship between the two institutions in the past does not mean there isn’t (unfortunately) sufficient ambiguity in the Constitution to permit of such play between the joints.

    I think McGuinness’ experience in the peace process, where constructive ambiguity abounded may provide a certain insight into how the Presidency could be used. The precise limits of this office are somewhat clear but NOT precisely so, primarily because they have never been tested to the limits by a political (with a capital P) individual. Most have been content to retire or to further agendas which are broadly positive and so far removed from the rough and tumble of everyday politics, that the Government isn’t terribly bothered.

    However, bank bailouts, the North, the State’s relationship with the EU ARE issues which will engage any Government and perhaps most especially, this one.

    Impeachment sounds good, but even a bare glance at the Dáil should show that, save in a truly exceptional case of all-party support, the numbers would not be there either to issue or investigate a charge of impeachment.

    My own instinct is that the courts may be engaged if a constitutional crisis did occur and that presents considerable problems too, particularly given the Keane/Murray Court’s determination to remove itself from the political stage.

    Rory Carr:

    “The question that citizens must ask themselves is which of these presidents would it be preferable to have as a bulwark for the public good.”

    You miss the point. Our Constitution provides that the Dáil retains this function – Money Bills are a good example where even the other house of the Oireachtas may not intervene. We have a TD for every 30,000 people: if such representatives cannot collectively determine the “public good”, then a President certainly cannot. There can be no shortcut to obtaining a majority in a general election (or building one subsequent to it). I am all for a President who may wish to help us connect with our Diaspora or build bridges in the North. But if we seek determinations of the public good, we should look to our Parliament, for it is they our Constitution charges with performing this function.