Saturday 27 December 2014

Shane Coleman: Michael D exceeded his powers but he is still on-message with Coalition

Published 03/05/2013 | 17:00

President Michael D Higgins  pictured during the opening ceremony of the Hunger Nutrition Climate Justice conference in the Conference Hall, Dublin Castle as part of the Irish Presidency of the Council of the European Union, yesterday.
Pic Frank Mc Grath
President Michael D Higgins pictured during the opening ceremony of the Hunger Nutrition Climate Justice conference in the Conference Hall, Dublin Castle as part of the Irish Presidency of the Council of the European Union, yesterday. Pic Frank Mc Grath

IT'S well over 20 years since Des O'Malley predicted Micheal D Higgins would "go mad in government". O'Malley was proven wrong. Higgins switched with ease from anti-establishment rebel to the Cabinet, excelling in his role as Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht between 1993 and '97.

But President Higgins's comments yesterday, criticising the ECB and European leaders for their response to the economic crisis, will re-ignite concerns about whether he is suited to the narrow constitutional constraints in which a President must operate.

It seems almost beyond debate that the President exceeded his powers yesterday – and arguably not for the first time. The constitution is pretty explicit about the limitations of the role.

Its provision that the President can't leave the State "save with the consent of the Government" demonstrates the supremacy of the Executive in matters of foreign policy.

Article 13 (9) also says that the "powers and functions conferred on the President by this constitution should be exercisable and performable by him only on the advice of the Government".

Put simply, a president straying into matters of government policy is, technically at least, a no-no. And, by giving an interview to the 'Financial Times' bemoaning the EU's failure to break the link between bank and sovereign debt and issue Eurobonds, that's clearly what the President has done.

The question is does anybody, not least within government, really care? It seems that the answer to that question is 'not particularly'. Public opinion, largely unconcerned by constitutional niceties, has in the recent past firmly backed both Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese when they arguably strayed beyond the boundaries of their office.

Given both the public's affection for Michael D Higgins and the fact that most people will agree with his criticisms, there is likely to be widespread support for his intervention.

And not just outside politics. Senior coalition figures were pretty relaxed about the President's comments yesterday. "It's just Michael D," was the prevailing sentiment.

This easy-going attitude is unsurprising. For starters, it would probably take a pretty extraordinary intervention by the President to invoke a reaction from the Government.

Every minister is acutely aware of the 1976 constitutional crisis brought on when the Defence Minister Paddy Donegan criticised then President Cearbhall O Dalaigh. The controversy led to O Dalaigh's resignation and was a PR disaster for the then Fine Gael-Labour coalition.

Nobody wants a repeat of that. Not least because presidents tend to be more popular than the government of the day, so there can only be one winner in any such conflict. This has meant ministers in successive governments have bitten their lips at times when they felt the President had gone beyond his or her remit.

For example, there was some disquiet in cabinet circles last year when Michael D Higgins made comments in the wake of the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar. But ministers did not dare go public with that disquiet.

This time around though, there is little if any of that irritation. And that's because the President's comments on austerity and the ECB are in line with the Coalition's.

The Taoiseach and his ministers, given they are negotiating with the ECB and the German government, have to be more restrained in their public utterances about Euro policy. But it arguably helps their cause in Europe, if the President is reflecting public opinion here and saying the things they really can't.

The more benign view within government is that Michael D is aware of this fact and is clever enough to know how far he can push the boundaries of his office, without bringing him into conflict with the Government.

Perhaps. But the primary role of a President should never be forgotten. He or she has two key powers – the right to refuse to dissolve the Dail and the power to refer legislation to the Supreme Court. To perform these functions, a President must not just be above politics, he or she must be clearly seen to be above politics.

In that context, there must be questions over the desirability of a more out-spoken, opinionated and interventionist President – even one who is not at odds with the Government.

Irish Independent

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