The office of president was not always a ceremonial backwater. By Diarmaid Ferriter PHOTOGRAPHS by TOM BURKE
eamon de Valera's decision to create an office of president as part of his new Constitution caused quite a stir and was hotly debated in the Dail in May and June 1937, as well as causing comment more generally, including in the Irish Independent where an editorial warned in relation to the new office, "these powers are far in excess of those exercised by the ruler of the British Empire; they flavour more of fascism or Hitlerism than of a democratic state, which Eire is supposed to be".
Part of the fear, in what was a very dangerous decade for democracy internationally, was that a president, once elected, might seek to obtain additional powers, because the Constitution contains a provision that additional presidential powers can be provided for by law.
Concern was focused on Article 13.10, which reads "subject to this Constitution, further powers and functions may be conferred on the president by law". But in defending the creation of the presidency, De Valera presented it as a protection of democratic government and it did not evolve into a politically powerful office.
In European terms, the Irish presidency has been characterised as a weak form of presidency, due to lack of constitutional powers and the way in which the practice of treating it as a limited office was established from the outset.
The President would be a symbolic head of state with a ceremonial role, and while presidents might comment on social issues in a non-political way and represent Ireland abroad, there would be no encroachment on policy.
Articles 12 to 14 of the Constitution of 1937 detail the powers of the office of president, who is titular supreme commander of the Defence Forces.
Although the Constitution prevents the president from participation in party politics or the day-to-day running of government, there are six discretionary powers for use in specific circumstances.
Three give them adjudicatory role in disputes between Dail and Senate on money bills, and an abridgement of time for the Senate to consider a bill (which have never arisen); a fourth gives the President power to convene a meeting of either or both of the houses of the Oireachtas.
The President can also refer a bill passed by the Oireachtas to the Supreme Court to judge its constitutionality, before which the President must consult, but not be bound, by the Council of State, an advisory body containing past and present senior politicians and seven people appointed by the president.
The sixth power, relating to the dissolution of the Dail, does not require consultation; according to article 13.2.2, the President "may in his absolute discretion refuse to dissolve Dail Eireann on the advice of a Taoiseach who has ceased to retain the support of a majority in Dail Eireann".
No President has ever exercised this power.
In creating the office of President, De Valera did not envisage an "active presidency" – it was quite clear from the Constitution that it was parliament that would be paramount.
Presidents did, however, occasionally cause controversy and the most explosive crisis around the presidency came in 1976 when President Cearbhall O Dalaigh resigned after being called a "thundering disgrace" by the minister for defence, Fine Gael's Patrick Donegan.
O Dalaigh, a former Supreme Court judge who had been an agreed choice for President after the sudden death of Erskine Childers in 1974, had referred the government's Emergency Powers Bill to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality. The bill was designed to give more extensive powers to the gardai in dealing with those suspected of subversive crime, a development that created worries about civil liberties.
The controversy was the culmination of different tensions that had been brewing since he took up office.
O Dalaigh, who had been an unsuccessful general election candidate for Fianna Fail early in his career, had felt ignored and sidelined by the Fine Gael-Labour coalition government then in power – and Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave in particular.
In a draft letter to Cosgrave during the controversy, O Dalaigh suggested that, on the surface, their relations may have been "cordial", but "I would, however, be failing in my duty if I did not record here – for history – that since I entered on the presidency . . . on none of the occasions of your infrequent visits . . . did you, in your conversations with me, say anything to me that could be construed even remotely to amount to keeping the President generally informed on matters of domestic and international policy – a mandatory requirement of your office".
A Dail motion calling for Donegan's resignation was defeated. O Dalaigh felt his resignation was "the only way open to me to assert publicly my personal integrity and independence as President of Ireland and to protect the dignity and independence of the presidency as an institution".