Friday 28 October 2016

The presidency must stay above the fray - otherwise you rob it of prestige

Published 13/05/2016 | 02:30

Sabina Higgins has intervened in the abortion debate. It has been claimed that as a 'private citizen' she has a right to do so. But if she was simply a 'private citizen', would she have been invited to address the various 1916 events? (Picture: Steve Humphreys)
Sabina Higgins has intervened in the abortion debate. It has been claimed that as a 'private citizen' she has a right to do so. But if she was simply a 'private citizen', would she have been invited to address the various 1916 events? (Picture: Steve Humphreys)

Is it really so surprising that Sabina Higgins has weighed in to the abortion debate? She and her husband - our First Citizen - have been using the prestige given to them by the office of the presidency to advocate for all sorts of points of view.

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In this column a few weeks ago, I described how Michael D Higgins has been continually using the soapbox provided to him by the presidency to push a particular worldview, in his case, socialism.

Is that putting it too strongly? Not at all. Read his speeches in which he attacks so-called "neo-liberalism", attacks free market advocates such as Milton Friedman, extols their intellectual opposite numbers and, in one of his 1916 speeches, even managed to work in a favourable reference to soviet committees set up in various parts of the country 100 years ago.

This was done without the faintest trace of a blush. There was another part of the world that was, of course, setting up lots of soviet committees around that time - namely the Soviet Union. We all know how that noble experiment in 'equality' worked out.

Sabina herself, at another 1916 event, attacked capitalism's "empires of greed".

"Now 100 years later in this contemporary and globalised world there is a new form of capitalism," she said. "And that seeks to undermine democracy itself."

She added: "The empires of greed are even more powerful and less visible and less accountable. The challenges are only too clear as we see the suffering of our fellow men and women across the globe."

It is also astounding that such a thing can be said without so much as a blush. Those countries that have embraced market reforms and free trade have done vastly better economically speaking, and consequently have lifted far more people out of poverty than those that have opted for closed economies and nationalised industries.

I don't think that either the President or his wife have any business using the office of the presidency in such a way.

I would object equally loudly if a President Michael McDowell used the office to push his own ideological point of view, one very different, when it comes to economics at least, to that espoused by Sabina and her husband. I would also object if the office was used to push a pro-life view.

This week we read that Sabina was speaking at a debate by midwifery students about whether or not Ireland's maternity care has realised the ideals of the 1916 leaders.

She used the occasion to weigh in on the abortion debate. She said it is an "outrage" that women whose unborn babies have been diagnosed with a condition that will very likely result in their deaths soon after birth should have to carry these babies to term.

She told the midwives: "There has to be the choice that you know that... what do you call it... that foetal abnormality that the person or persons should be made carry you know and sit in you know… these are really outrages against women and outrages against the world and nature."

Let's leave to one side the rights and wrongs of terminating early the life of a baby that will very likely die soon after birth, and consider instead the intervention of the wife of the President in such a controversial debate.

It has been said in her defence that as a "private citizen", Sabina Higgins, unlike her husband, is entitled to say what she likes. But if she was simply a "private citizen", rather than the President's wife, would her remarks have been the page one headline of this newspaper on Monday? In fact, she was described in the headline as the "President's wife" because it was this that gave her remarks such significance - and it was this that signalled to readers that the remark was newsworthy.

In addition, would she have been invited to the midwifery event if she was not the wife of the First Citizen? Would she have been invited to address those other 1916 events? So we cannot pretend that she is simply a "private citizen".

Finally, if she is merely a "private citizen" then why did the Áras an Uachtaráin press office clarify what she said at the above mentioned debate?

It is true, of course, that the Constitution says nothing about the role of the spouse of the President. On this basis, it is argued, and has been argued by at least one constitutional expert, she is free to say what she likes.

But the role of the President, and of the spouse of the President, is also bound by custom and protocol. It is this that dictates, more than a literal reading of the Constitution, that the presidency, and everything associated with it, should remain above matters of public controversy.

To do otherwise makes it a controversial office, a divisive office, one that is no longer above the fray, one that no longer unites - meaning the President must be subject to the same day-to-day criticism aimed at any other political office-holder.

The presidency has gained its prestige by keeping itself above the fray, by being non-partisan. To then take advantage of that prestige by using the office for partisan purposes will eventually rob the office of much of its prestige. The only reason this has not happened to date is because much of what he (and she) has to say suits liberal opinion, and liberal opinion governs this country to a ridiculous extent.

But as the office becomes ever more politicised, future presidential contests will become even more fraught than the last one. We will have to know in advance to what partisan purposes a candidate would use the office if he or she won it. We will have to know in advance what the role of the candidate's spouse will be. We will also have to know what the candidate will do following their term of office.

For example, Mary Robinson has been quite explicit in saying that she believes she ought to stay out of issues of strong public controversy in Ireland even after stepping down, in the tradition of previous office-holders.

But Mary McAleese felt it was her moral duty to become involved in last year's marriage referendum on the Yes side. Thus she brought the prestige of her previous office to bear in that debate.

So we will need to know from prospective presidents whether they will follow the convention of Mary Robinson or Mary McAleese.

This is what happens when you politicise an office that ought not to be politicised. You end up being forced to treat and regard the President and the presidency as one more partisan office.

That was never its intention, but this week Sabina Higgins pulled it considerably further in that direction.

Irish Independent

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