Wednesday 13 November 2019

John Downing: Time to see how we can improve the way we pick our president

  

Presidential Candidates Gavin Duffy, MEP Liadh Ní Riada, Peter Casey, Sean Gallagher and Senator Joan Freeman pictured alongside Matt Cooper and Ivan Yates Picture: Brian McEvoy
Presidential Candidates Gavin Duffy, MEP Liadh Ní Riada, Peter Casey, Sean Gallagher and Senator Joan Freeman pictured alongside Matt Cooper and Ivan Yates Picture: Brian McEvoy
John Downing

John Downing

Elections were not created to entertain the masses - but on occasion they do just that.

When an election engages the people it enhances our democracy and helps unite us as a people. It is epitomised by that moment when you found yourself watching a pub television set and talking to strangers about transfers, and the prospect of a marathon recount in some far-flung part of the country.

The presidential election, which invites the country's 3.2 million voters to the polls today, was nowhere near being one of those enthusing and unifying contests. That reality does not, however, justify the lazy conclusion that it was not worth holding this presidential election.

Looked at from the other side, if we did not have this contest, and automatically rolled over the seven-year term of President Michael D Higgins, we would have been guilty of allowing the established order make decisions which are the prerogative of the voter.

The post of Uachtarán na hÉireann has few powers - but these powers, if required, could be important to the entire nation. We would hope that a person of ability, integrity and good judgment would be in place to decide just how to use them.

A good example here is the absolute power to decide not to dissolve Dáil Éireann. This has never actually happened but it is provided for in a situation where the Taoiseach does not have the support of the majority of the members of the Dáil.

We have entered an era of political fragmentation and it took 70 days to cobble the current hybrid minority Coalition after the February 26, 2016 General Election. In such a gap, the influence of a skilled president could prove very useful.

This election has forcefully shown that some elements of the office were designed more than 80 years ago for a very different Ireland which was run by two big parties. We have learned that only candidates who are very well off, or are backed by a large political party, can stand for election.

We need a debate around that. It is not beyond the wit of man to look again at campaign funding and spending limits to make access to candidacy more democratic.

We have also seen the anomalous situation where the incumbent president continued in office and alternately went campaigning to the end. That must be changed and there is a simple way of achieving it.

In normal circumstances, where a president is ill, or overseas, or resigns from office, the presidential functions are taken over by the Presidential Commission. This is made up of the Ceann Comhairle of Dáil Éireann, Cathaoirleach of Seanad Éireann, and the Chief Justice and they have done the job on several occasions down the years.

It has been a much shorter campaign this time than the previous one in 2011. But it had far less verve and engagement.

By now the cudgels have been laid aside and we await the will of the people. The count may yet offer some talking points.

Irish Independent

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