My old friend and colleague Tim Pat Coogan has gathered quite a bit of support with his radical suggestion that Ireland doesn't really need a president at all. There was no president in the first constitution of the Irish State, he points out, and the current position was merely set up by de Valera in 1937 as a "well-paid old folks' home".
At the best of times, we can do without a president, and these are not the best of times. Why not spend the money instead on supporting hospitals and education rather than on this "Ruritanian institution, with its aura of the Raj and the Vice-Regal Lodge"?
If you were going to be completely utilitarian about this issue, why not demolish Aras an Uachtarain altogether -- the former Vice-Regal Lodge -- and replace it with a hospital or a school? Or a high-rise car park? There was a similar proposal made, back in the 1960s, by those factions who favoured getting rid of anything associated with the remnants of colonialism: knock down Georgian Dublin and fill it with high-rise concrete blocks. Fill in the Grand Canal and turn it into a motorway.
Demolish Dublin's only theatre that could serve as a proper opera house -- the Theatre Royal, in Hawkins' Street -- and put up a high-rise office block, in concrete, in its place. They did just that, and it's a blight on the Dublin skyline to this day. Look on it and weep. That's what comes of destroying anything to do with the "aura of the Raj" -- rather than adapting it and using it to our advantage.
Still, TPC will have plenty of cheering for his proposal because the public is sick and tired of seeing large sums of money sloshed around unnecessarily. There is a simpler solution to the financial cost of the presidency, which I have touched on before: pay the incumbent less. Plenty of perfectly good candidates would do the job for a lot less than €325,508 plus pension, plus expenses. I'd suggest a salary of €80,000 and a reasonable pension are quite acceptable.
But Ireland still does need a presidency, not only because the position is embedded in the Constitution -- indeed, it is a cornerstone of the Constitution; but because, as Walter Bagehot, the English constitutional expert once wrote, a nation needs someone to do the "functional" side of governance, and someone else to do the "dignified" side of national life.
The functional side is done by elected politicians, supported by the civil service. Democratic politics are, by their very nature, down and dirty: it's an adversarial system where you have to throw mud at your opponents, and use cunning and calculation to further your party's interests.
A working parliament is a parliament with plenty of heated argument and spirited invective. "Can I call the honourable deputy a rat, Cathaoirleach?" "Excuse me, Cathaoirleach, the rats in my constituency object!" On a lively occasion a TD said of the late Garret Fitzgerald, who bobbed up and down with objections: "He's up and down like a whore's knickers, Cathaoirleach!" That's all part of the discourse of politics, and only a dead parliament is one in which there is a respectful consensus.
But the ceremonial head of state has a different role. He, or she, must carry out the "dignified" part. They must represent 'brand Ireland' in an emblematic role. They must comfort the afflicted in national tragedies and extend a welcome to visiting dignitaries.
They must inspect the military with grace and a sense of focus, so that the military maintains morale and standards. They must receive ambassadors and heads of state, the Pope, the Dalai Lama, the king of Norway and the president of the European Council. These occasions are not fripperies: they are about international relations, trade deals, the personal networking that is crucial to a country's profile in today's globalised world.
If all these "dignified" tasks were to be allocated to the Taoiseach, he would need to appoint a mini-Taoiseach to carry on everyday political business, as French President Nicolas Sarkozy appoints a prime minister.
And for those of us who are anti-partitionists, there is a special reason to value the role of Uactharain na hEireann. An Irish president really can build bridges with the North -- as Mary McAleese has certainly done -- in a manner that a working politician cannot: because the historical hinterland of cross-border politics can be a bitter obstruction on that bridge.
But a president can be a more emollient and politically neutral figure. One of the reasons why Gay Byrne would have been a fine candidate is that he would have been seen in the North as an approachable figure, but without any political baggage.
The role of the president could be more economically organised, and the procedure could be made more open and less party-political: why not allow anyone who has the support of 20,000 citizens to stand, instead of needing the endorsement of 20 Oireachtas members or four county councils?
Yet it remains a serious and important role -- a role of service to the country and investment in Ireland's international image. Cometh the hour -- cometh the man or woman? We must hope so, with respect to Tim Pat's disapproval.