Saturday 25 May 2019

Dr Theresa Reidy explains the role of Irish President: Pretty powerless but six important rules and responsibilities


Line up: The Presidential candidates with Pat Kenny (centre) for the TV debate on Wednesday. Photo: Brian McEvoy
Line up: The Presidential candidates with Pat Kenny (centre) for the TV debate on Wednesday. Photo: Brian McEvoy
Speech: Mary McAleese addressed the Houses of the Oireachtas in 1999. Photo: Matt Walsh

Dr Theresa Reidy

President of Ireland is a pretty powerless position, but it is not wise to write it off as entirely ineffectual.

The election, role and powers of the president are dealt with in a small number of articles in the Constitution.

These amount to about a dozen pages. The president has formal constitutional powers, a small number of ceremonial roles and has reasonable scope to exert soft power.

1. Dáil

The president dissolves the Dáil on the advice of the Taoiseach - but there is one circumstance in which the president has a powerful say.

When a Taoiseach loses the confidence of the Dáil, the president has absolute discretion as to whether a dissolution is granted.

In the rare circumstances when this arises, the political judgement of the president is crucial in determining whether an election is needed or whether an alternative government might be possible.

Ireland has had coalitions for decades and it looks like minority government could be the new normal, so this is a power that is likely to come into play more frequently. It is one of the reasons why a deep understanding of politics is an important pre-requisite.

2. Legislation

The president is responsible for signing bills that pass through the Dáil and the Seanad into law. If a president considers that a bill is not compatible with the Constitution, following consultation with the Council of State, they may refer it to the Supreme Court. There are important limits to this power.

First, bills to amend the Constitution and budget matters are exempt. Second, it applies only where a president believes that there might be a constitutional problem.

Disagreeing with or disliking a bill are not grounds for referring it to the Supreme Court. And there is a sting in the tail that might inspire caution: if the bill is deemed constitutional, it cannot be challenged in the courts again.

3. Addresses

Following consultation with the Council of State, the president may address the Houses of the Oireachtas. Éamon de Valera, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese all did this.

Presidents may also address the nation. When the Constitution was being drafted, they were probably thinking about radio, but there is nothing to stop any president using social media.

But, an important caveat is included in the Constitution, all such communications must be approved by the government. This is a crucial point and no doubt intended to ensure the State does not have a president and government in regular, public dispute.

4. Mediation

There are also a couple of powers that have never been used and are unlikely to be invoked. The president has a role in mediating disputes between the Dáil and the Seanad and a role in referring a bill to the people by way of an ordinary referendum.

5. Ceremonial roles

The ceremonial roles of the president include appointing the Taoiseach following his nomination by the Dáil and formally appoints all ministers, presenting them with their seal of office. The president receives the credentials of all ambassadors and has the formidable-sounding power of supreme command of the Defence Forces.

However, the next sentence in the Constitution makes clear that this "supreme" power is regulated by law.

There are also potent constitutional restrictions, including that the president cannot leave the State without the consent of the government.

There is absolutely no question of any president leading either a military or diplomatic campaign that has not been sanctioned by the government.

6. Soft powers

Presidents do have considerable soft powers and indeed as the office holders have become more active and media coverage of the presidency more extensive, these powers have come to be very influential. The president can become patron of charities, discuss social and cultural causes, attend events and receive guests at Áras an Uachtaráin.

These allow a president to pursue important issues and promote values and attitudes.

Presidential patronage can be a powerful support in advancing a cause or agenda.

Dr Theresa Reidy is a political scientist at University College Cork

Irish Independent

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