Friday 23 February 2018

What would Michael D do in a constitutional crisis?

President Higgins may soon get a chance to prove his own claim about the value of wisdom and experience, writes Eilis O’Hanlon

Irish president Michael D Higgins
Irish president Michael D Higgins

Eilis O’Hanlon

The downside of bagging the best job of your life at the age of 70 is that people immediately start speculating when, and if, you might be planning to retire.

Michael D Higgins has faced those questions since he first became President in 2011. Now, four years into his seven year term, he’s managed to reignite the issue by dropping the R word while on a visit to the United States, telling a reception in Los Angeles: “This word ‘retirement’ is ridiculous.”

Immediately he was asked to confirm whether he would, therefore, be seeking a second term in the Aras in 2018. Refusing to do so made speculation inevitable.

It’s a shame that the traditional “will he, won’t he?” game which always dogs incumbents in midterm overshadowed what the President actually said, not least his contention that “it’s a ridiculous assumption that there is any one period of your life when you are innovative or creative... you can be creative right up to the end.”

It bears repeating. Discrimination on the grounds of age is the last acceptable “ism”. Sexism and racism are now generally considered unacceptable. Ageism is still very much in force. The talents of too many people are still being wasted because they’re dismissed as too old to make a contribution; and, if anything, it’s getting worse.

Discriminating against someone on the dubious grounds that they’re too old is far worse than doing so because they’re too young. Making someone wait their turn isn’t limiting their ambition, merely delaying it. Closing the door to those who’ve reached official retirement age is the ultimate rejection, because it’s saying in effect that they have nothing left to offer.

President Higgins was right about creativity too. Many an artist’s greatest work has come at the end of their lives; in fact there is some evidence that old age itself is what produces this late flowering.

What holds true in art ought to do so in public life too. There are plenty of people with other achievements under their belt who could make a contribution if given half a chance. The tragedy is that they’re more usually written off.

A TD can sit around the Dail for 40 unremarkable years, as Enda Kenny did, before making his mark, so why should someone who’s had a long, successful career in another field be excluded from entering politics for the first time in their seventh and eighth decade? In reality, even getting a nomination would be well nigh impossible.

This renewed focus on President Higgins’ age has probably come about because of the impending general election, which may well face him with his biggest challenge as head of state.

The polls are volatile (what’s new?), but it looks unlikely that the current government will have enough support to cross the winning line a second time. With Fine Gael support rising, the coalition might not be as far off as they might have feared a year ago, but they’ll still need to put together a coalition with independents. As leader of the largest party in the Dail, Kenny will get the first chance to do so. Should he fail, well, that’s where the fun begins.

Theoretically, Higgins may be faced as President with a decision whether to give the go ahead to Gerry Adams to see if Sinn Fein could form a government together with whatever rag tag of left wing independents he can cobble together long enough to stop fighting over who’s got the best soundbites on austerity.

Portugal’s President Silva has been in the eye of a similar constitutional storm since October 4, when elections failed to produce a clear winner. In giving the green light to the centre right prime minister to stay on in office as head of a minority government on the grounds that he heads the largest party, Silva was following precedent; but his decision to forbid certain far left and eurosceptic parties from even trying to form a working coalition attracted severe criticism. Some have even called it a coup.

The socialists, communists and Greens were still in the middle of talks on a possible programme for government when the president pre-empted the outcome.

Ireland is unlikely to face a crisis that grave next spring. SF and the left are nowhere near having the numbers needed to mount the same challenge. But it’s not as if the country hasn’t faced similar situations before. Patrick Hillery was asked by Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald in 1982 to dissolve the Dail after he lost a budget vote; figures in Hillery’s own Fianna Fail party urged him to refuse, so that Charles Haughey could form a minority government.

Hillery took a principled stand against this pressure, and granted Fitzgerald the dissolution. In one sense, that was no big surprise. No President had ever refused such a request from a Taoiseach. But it does highlight some of the constitutional tangles which can arise.

What will President Higgins do if next spring’s election fails to produce a clear result and Ireland faces into a long period of political stasis, without a working government? All the evidence suggests that his interpretation of the role of President is instinctively conservative. He makes the odd speech which seems to nudge over into political controversy, but on the whole he stays firmly inside the constraints of office.

There have been a number of grass roots campaigns urging him to use his powers to either kill contentious legislation, or to refer it to the people in a referendum, including the Local Government Bill and the act setting up Irish Water; but he has ignored them all.

If SF and the far left are hoping the President will help them pull a constitutional fast one, they’re going to be severely disappointed.

Whatever happens, the election looks set to recall the old Chinese curse ‘may you live in interesting times’, so it’s probably as well that Higgins won that race back in 2011.

Sean Gallagher wouldn’t have been the disaster his critics expected, but nor would this thorny arcane fare have been in his comfort zone. Martin McGuinness in the same role would be obscene.

This could well be Michael D’s chance to not only champion the benefits of wisdom and experience, but to prove it as well.

Sunday Independent

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