Sunday 28 May 2017

The presidents who broke the mould after Dev's 'lap of honour'

Victory for courage: Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh
Victory for courage: Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh

Patrick Geoghegan

Shortly after he took office, President Michael D Higgins attended a packed meeting of the College Historical Society in Trinity College Dublin where he was presented with its prestigious gold medal for his contribution to oratory and politics. During his address, I could not help watching the reactions of the students. Almost all were mesmerised by his oratory, which was fiery, eloquent and, above all, unapologetically intellectual.

Names of sociologists and political theorists were thrown out at a bewildering pace, as ideas were discussed and challenged, often inspiring the audience, sometimes confusing it. During the question-and-answer session some students - clearly huge fans of The West Wing and American politics - addressed him as 'Mr President'.

The affection was unmistakeable. Since that evening, President Higgins has not stopped speaking. Recently he published a collection, When Ideas Matter, bringing together some of his best contributions over the past five years. In the preface he struck a truthful, and perhaps defiant, note: "What I have written I would have sought to write irrespective of circumstances." It reminded me that few of his predecessors, certainly not in the early years, would have been afforded such freedom.

The relationship between a president and the government of the day is a critical one, and often determines the success of the term of office. There is usually a certain amount of tension, and many presidents have felt constrained by the role, resenting attempts to limit and curtail their actions.

The very first president, Douglas Hyde, took some crucial actions to avoid being moulded into a ceremonial figurehead. For example, he showed courage in referring controversial legislation to the Supreme Court, establishing an important part of the role, and carefully sought advice before granting a Dáil dissolution in 1944.

His successors, Seán T O'Kelly and Éamon de Valera, spent the next 28 years in Áras an Uachtaráin, and coming as it did at the end of long, successful careers, the perception became hard to shake that the Áras was a retirement home, a reward for past achievements. Perhaps not surprisingly, the sub-heading for de Valera's tenure, in Ronan Fanning's splendid entry in the Royal Irish Academy's Dictionary of Irish Biography, is simply 'Lap of Honour'.

In the 1970s, their successors struggled to redefine the role. The fourth president, Erskine Childers, decided to make it an active one, and he developed plans to encourage 'social patriotism' and bring forward ideas for the future of Ireland. However, he faced resistance from government, and died in office before he was able to develop his conception of the role.

Childers' successor, the former Chief Justice Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, tried to stretch the boundaries of the office, but faced even greater resistance. He was not kept informed on matters of state, and this all came to a head when he referred the Emergency Powers Bill to the Supreme Court, prompting a furious minister for defence to denounce him as "a thundering disgrace". The minister apologised but did not resign, so Ó Dálaigh went instead. His resignation was a powerful way of protecting the dignity and independence of the presidency as an institution.

Unfairly derided for being an invisible president, the reality is that Patrick Hillery, Ó Dálaigh's successor, also tried to do more in the role. However, he was hampered by a number of factors, including opposition from the government, and his own caution.

The great achievement of the Mary Robinson presidency is that it normalised the idea of a president taking a more pro-active role. True, there was occasionally tension with the government, but it shattered the existing conventions which relegated the presidency to a ceremonial position, better seen but not heard. Mary McAleese took that role to another level, using her two terms to build bridges, speaking with a moral authority that earned her enormous respect at home and abroad. The evolution of the role continues.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the greatest American president in the 20th century, believed that the American presidency was "pre-eminently a place of moral leadership". He suggested that all the great presidents were "leaders of thought at times when certain historic ideas in the life of the nation had to be clarified".

Childers, Ó Dálaigh and Hillery, to varying degrees, and with varying success, attempted to ensure that an Irish president could also be a leader of thought, but they were resisted. It took the Robinson presidency to break the mould. By speaking up for equality, for the diaspora, and for others who had been voiceless, she ensured that Áras an Uachtaráin could become a place of moral leadership.

McAleese further imbued the role with moral authority, so that when she spoke out in favour of marriage equality last year, she influenced many because of the respect she had earned while in office. Higgins has attempted to do the same in the role, developing the 'thought leadership' function and showing independence in his speeches on global austerity, climate change and refugee policy, and in articulating the idea that universities should be citadels for intellectual enquiry not post-Leaving Certificate training courses for the marketplace.

Diarmaid Ferriter, in his work on the 1970s, has shown that when Ó Dálaigh resigned the office of presidency, he hoped to be vindicated in the future. He wanted a book to be published on the events, and even suggested the title: The Wrong Man.

Today, few believe that Ó Dálaigh was the wrong man. His stand may not have been fully understood at the time, but it is recognised now as a victory for courage and integrity.

In the last three holders of the office - Robinson, McAleese, and Higgins - we have had individuals who have occasionally provoked, sometimes annoyed, but often inspired. None of them will be the subject of biographies called The Wrong President.

Patrick Geoghegan is professor and head of history at Trinity College Dublin and the presenter of the award-winning Talking History programme on Newstalk

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