Saturday 19 October 2019

Liam Weeks: 'Questions of power and politics that may change role of our First Citizen'

What sort of head of state do we want? It may be worth looking beyond convention

LEADING MAN: President Michael D Higgins is the only Irish politician with a national mandate. More than 820,000 people gave him a first preference in 2018
LEADING MAN: President Michael D Higgins is the only Irish politician with a national mandate. More than 820,000 people gave him a first preference in 2018

Liam Weeks

It has been a week of mixed fortunes for heads of state. One, President Trump, stands accused of wielding too much power, with impeachment proceedings against him announced last Tuesday.

Another head of state, Queen Elizabeth, stands accused of not wielding enough power. With the British Supreme Court ruling, also last Tuesday, that Boris Johnson's decision to suspend parliament was unconstitutional, some have queried why the monarch gave assent to her prime minister's request.

In most democracies, one of the primary roles of the head of state is to act as a guardian of the constitution on behalf of the people. If the head feels that the government is acting in an unconstitutional manner, he or she reserves the right not to assent to such behaviour.

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For example, in our own country the President can refuse to sign a bill of parliament if he thinks it may be unconstitutional and is infringing on people's rights. He can instead refer the bill to the Supreme Court to adjudicate on its constitutionality. Different Presidents have taken such a decision on 15 separate occasions, and seven times the courts have struck down the legislation, indirectly validating the President's position as our constitutional guardian.

But this power is one of the few instances in which the Irish President can take a political stance.

Although the Constitution does not specifically preclude many different types of political behaviour by our President, neither does it grant the office-holder too many defined powers.

In other words, there isn't a whole lot Presidents are prohibited from doing, but neither is there a great deal that they are specified to do.

In such a power vacuum, convention, as is the case in many countries, can take precedence over constitution.

It doesn't matter if a political action is permitted constitutionally; if it is not the convention, then realpolitik dictates that such an action is not feasible.

In Ireland, the convention concerning our President is that of a very minimal political role.

Whoever occupies the Aras is supposed to be seen and not heard. He or she is supposed to be a symbolic figurehead of the nation, following in the footsteps of the first incumbent, Douglas Hyde. He established a pattern that Presidents should be non-political and entirely subservient to the Government. A lame duck before they even begin their term, let alone one coming to an end.

But this prescribed role is, by and large, not written down anywhere. It is a convention.

So, while some Presidents treated Aras an Uachtarain as a retirement home, its more recent residents have sought to exploit this ambiguity in their role.

Mary Robinson was probably the first President to energise the position, and, more recently, Michael D Higgins has sought to push the boundaries further.

In his first term in office, President Higgins often made speeches that re-iterated views he had held while a Labour TD, but which as President, seemed at odds with some of government policy.

In 2013, his lecture at DCU on an ''ethical economy'' drew the ire of Dan O'Brien, then at the Irish Times, which ran with the headline ''Ireland ill-served as President becomes increasingly partisan and political''.

Likewise, on the eve of the last Dail election President Higgins queried the value of tax cuts, a policy preference that seemed to conflict with that of the main parties, including that of Fine Gael in government.

In an interview with the Irish Times, the President asked: "Is it possible to have a decent society and at the same time continue to lower taxes for the purposes of securing the best short-term benefit?"

In the past few weeks, President Higgins continued this theme of expressing his political beliefs, which in his defence should not have surprised anyone given his history in the Labour Party.

At a ceremony for the Defence Forces earlier this month, President Higgins raised concerns about their salaries.

He said: "It is not too much, I would suggest, to expect that serving men and women should have conditions including an income and prospects that are sufficient to provide for themselves and their families. Indeed, as they are the employees of the State, such conditions should be exemplary for other parts of the society and economy.''

While some felt that the President was perfectly entitled to raise these concerns given his constitutional role as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, some members of the Government were not so affirmative.

Their reaction was not quite as strong as that of the Defence Minister Paddy Donegan in 1976, when he called the referral of the Emergency Powers Act to the Supreme Court by the then President Cearbhall O Dalaigh a "thundering disgrace".

But it was still one of surprise. The Agriculture Minister Michael Creed described President Higgins' comments as "quite unusual", while another (unnamed) senior minister told the the Irish Examiner: "They were deeply unhelpful. We are trying to hold a public pay deal together with sticky tape and Blu Tack.

"This will only heighten the pressure on us to loosen the purse strings even further."

While these individuals, and many others, might prefer President Higgins to adopt a non-active, almost dormant, role more similar to that of Queen Elizabeth, it is worth bearing in mind the difference in the nature of the mandates of these two heads of state, and why President Higgins might feel entitled to a greater role than that of the British monarch

One reason why Queen Elizabeth needs to remain out of politics is because her post is a hereditary title, something that should be anathema in a modern democracy. Because her mandate is simply her birthright, Queen Elizabeth knows that were she to exercise any political will or act, it would severely undermine the position of the monarchy in the British political system, and might lead to some calls for its abolition, as unfathomable as that might seem at the moment.

In contrast, President Higgins' lineage had no bearing on his becoming the effective first citizen of the state. He is the only politician in Ireland with a national mandate. More than 820,000 people gave him a first preference in 2018.

To put this into context, Fianna Fail under Bertie Ahern in 2007 was the only occasion when a party at an Irish election won more votes than Michael D Higgins last year.

This popular mandate the President possesses is something that the Taoiseach and his Government ministers are lacking.

None of them are elected by the people. And the President's mandate might only be increased further if a referendum on extending voting rights for presidential elections to Irish citizens beyond the borders of the State is successfully passed.

It is this very mandate that President Higgins has been using to somewhat alter the convention of a President's role.

In response to recent criticisms, he said: "I know very clearly what I am saying. I am very, very much within the Constitution."

Pointedly, he also referred to his mandate: "The fact of the matter is, a very, very large number of people in Ireland decided that they wanted this kind of President."

It is difficult to determine the accuracy of these claims, but is obvious that President Higgins has a mandate and a popularity unlike any other politician in this country.

Perhaps the question we should be asking is not why the President is adopting a greater political role, but why this has not been done before.

Arguably, only convention, not the Constitution, stands in his way.

Dr Liam Weeks is a lecturer in the Department of Government & Politics at University College Cork

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