Thursday 15 November 2018

Farcical events prove we need to raise the bar for our would-be presidents

Presidential hopeful Norma Burke, aka Bunty Twuntingdon McFluff
Presidential hopeful Norma Burke, aka Bunty Twuntingdon McFluff
Áras contender: Peter Casey
Áras contender: Gemma O’Doherty
Áras contender: Kevin Sharkey
Áras contender: John Groarke
Áras contender: Sarah Louise Mulligan
John Downing

John Downing

'There's nothing in the Constitution to say I can't sing as President," Dana, also known as Rosemary Scallan, famously said during her surprise presidential campaign in autumn 1997.

And how right the 1970 'Eurovision Song Contest' winner was about that - though she didn't get elected and we were never treated to her warbling in the Phoenix Park, that we know of anyway. But Dana also left us a rather mixed legacy as the first person in the then 60-year history of our Constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann, to take the "council route" on to the presidential election ballot paper.

Her successful strategy was to simply appeal directly to councils on the democratic merits of being allowed to put her name before the people. Twenty years later, we absolutely expect that many councils will do just that.

By now three independent candidates, Seán Gallagher, Senator Joan Freeman, and Gavin Duffy, have the necessary four councils' endorsement to get on the presidential election ballot for October 26 next. We expect outgoing President Michael D Higgins to nominate himself and Sinn Féin will go the only other nomination route, via endorsement of 20 TDs or senators.

We have been treated to some strange goings-on for the past fortnight at council chambers as a variety of hitherto unknown characters have landed on the councillors seeking their support. On Thursday night at Dublin City Hall, we were treated to the ultimate illogical conclusion of these melodramas.

Read more: Duffy's 'relief' as he joins fellow Dragon Gallagher on the Áras ballot paper

Actor and film-maker Norma Burke, who presented as Bunty Twuntingdon McFluff, advocated turning Áras an Uachtaráin into a hunting lodge and spa. In a Swiftian turn of satire, she suggested homeless people living in the Phoenix Park could be hunted along with the deer.

Many of the councillors suffered acute sense of humour failure, eventually deciding not to endorse any candidate. But Ms Burke/McFluff said something many of us have been thinking - she was pointing up how farcical this can get.

"I did this because I got so angry listening to people who want to be candidates but haven't read the constitutional requirements," she said.

Yet Bunreacht na hÉireann is a surprisingly easy read and it sets out the obligations and limitations of the President clearly and swiftly.

The biggest presidential power is absolute discretion to refuse a dissolution of the Dáil at the request of a Taoiseach who has lost its support. No President has refused, but unsuccessful attempts were made to persuade Patrick Hillery to do so in 1982.

The other discretionary power is sending draft laws passed by the Dáil and Seanad to the Supreme Court for a test of their constitutionality. But, as has been shown by Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, the president can have big influence on the mood of the nation.

Neither of these presidents was content to confine herself, or the office, to issues already spoken to by the rest of the political system. It gave new life to a job which, prior to 1990, had become a retirement home for long-serving Fianna Fáil politicians.

Part of that open presidency was thanks to the councils exerting their hitherto unused power to nominate candidates, and people like Dana, who took the plunge and stood. Access to candidature should always have been open - not just accessible to a privileged few. But some of the farcical events of the past fortnight tell us that it is time for some sort of filter to be put in before would-be contenders present to councillors. Securing the nomination of a number of councillors beforehand seems advisable.

Few prospective employers would open their door to people without experience or qualifications. Why should councillors considering the presidency be any different?

Irish Independent

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