Eamon Delaney: Controversy raises more questions about precise role of Presidency
Published 22/01/2014 | 02:30
There is no doubt that the Presidency is not what it was. It used to be entirely ceremonial, with an affable figurehead cutting ribbons and signing bills.
However, after Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, the position has become much more activist and substantial, and with Michael D Higgins we were always going to be having even more of this.
The election of the former Labour firebrand represents a further development of the post.
But it also raises more questions about the precise role, procedure and etiquette of the position, not to mention its remit.
Granted, President Higgins has come a long way from his barricade days of denouncing US President Ronald Reagan and the Irish State's restrictive family planning laws.
He is now a respectable and seasoned veteran. It was once said of him that he 'would go mad in Government'. He didn't. And he won't in the Presidency. And although the post came to him almost by accident, by virtue of TV's 'Tweetgate' incident and implosion of Sean Gallagher's campaign, Higgins definitely represented the most solid and substantial of candidates.
But maybe too substantial: for many, he was the most likely to test the Presidency's limits.
This Higgins quickly did with speeches denouncing the excesses of capitalism and our loss of soul.
And there are signs that we will be getting more of this. His new adviser is Liam Herrick, the director of the Penal Reform Trust, who has been a major spokesman for the human rights industry and for prisoners' rights.
His appointment has created a bit of banter about whether it'll mean more jail visits by the President and ivory-tower lectures about society being too 'materialistic'.
Herrick succeeds the President's previous adviser, Mary Van Lieshout, who left the Aras apparently frustrated at her poor level of access to the President, especially compared to his friend and former driver Kevin McCarthy, who is on a lower pay grade.
The diminutive but iron-like Higgins is not one who will be easily pushed around, or persuaded from a position.
Recently, President Higgins refused to reveal whether he is a Christian believer or in fact an atheist, or agnostic. Michael D's beliefs are his own business while he remains a private citizen.
But he is no longer a private citizen and, on taking office, the President also took an oath of allegiance to God. This private/public distinction is equally problematic with the latest episode for our activist President.
This was the visit at the weekend by Sabina Higgins, the President's wife, to the jailed activist Margaretta D'Arcy.
The anti-war campaigner was jailed for refusing to agree not to invade a restricted area of Shannon airport, being used by US military en route to war zones in the Middle East.
D'Arcy (79) feels very strongly about this, which is absolutely fair enough. However, rather than just protest about this, as others do, D'Arcy has repeatedly broken the law and has refused to stop doing so.
And so the authorities had to jail her. They must have been surprised the President's wife visited - apparently in 'a private capacity'.
But there is no private capacity when you are living in the Aras as the President, or the President's wife. If they were so concerned about her incarceration, could they not have written or telephoned?
And many law-abiding citizens will wonder if any other regular, non-artistic felons get a visit like this from the President's wife?
And Margaretta D'Arcy is no ordinary peacenik dishing out flowers and lemonade.
She is also a veteran republican who appears not to have made the transition that even mainstream Sinn Fein has made.
Thus, in 2011, at the meeting of the artist's body, Aosdana, D'Arcy snubbed a minute's silence being given for the slain Catholic PSNI police officer Ronan Kerr, whose murder by dissident republicans provoked widespread outrage.
She was the only one of the 120 Aosdana members present not to take part.
D'Arcy claimed that she didn't think Aosdana should be participating in 'political gestures'. But this rang hollow: Aosdana is an organisation very much associated with politics, as is D'Arcy herself.
The question now is: is our Presidency now very much associated with politics?
Nobody wants to see a full return to the ceremonial role of Paddy Hillery, but a public will wonder just what surprises the present incumbent, and former radical, has in store for us, as he continues to assert his restless personality on what was once a figurehead role.