When the Presidency was a walk in the Park
Before the two Marys, Aras incumbents' time was spent less on trying to inspire us and more on crosswords and golf, says Anthony Cronin
The reason a presidential election so often turns into a knockdown, drag-out, no-holds-barred affair is that there is nothing else to talk about except the character, personality and previous career of the candidates. You cannot talk about policy because the President is not supposed to have any policies.
You cannot talk about legislating for this or legislating for that because the Presidency has no legislative role whatever and is barred from making any legislative suggestions to a government. There are really only two light duties assigned by the Constitution to the post. One is the occasional referral of a bill to the Supreme Court to decide on its constitutionality or otherwise. The other is the dissolution of the Dail on the advice of the Taoiseach and the handing over of the seals of office to a new holder of that office, thereby ensuring an orderly succession.
There is a suggestion that where a Taoiseach of the day has lost the confidence of the Dail the President could save us all the trouble, expense and turmoil of an election by asking somebody else to try to form a government. But this has never been put to the test and is never likely to be since poor Brian Lenihan pere incurred a lot of obloquy by trying to suggest to Paddy Hillery that he had this power.
Nowhere in the Constitution does it say the President must make uplifting or inspiring speeches, rally the diaspora or spend much time opening this or that. This kind of thing came in with our first female President, Mary Robinson, and was continued by her successor, Mary McAleese. Moved, one hopes, by a sense of duty but probably not oblivious of the possibility of re-election, they followed the example of the British Royal family, more especially of Princess Diana, who out-smarted her in-laws by being extraordinarily assiduous where comforting the afflicted was concerned. Most of our seven all-male Presidents before them had been happily inactive. They looked upon life in the Aras as a bonus and a reward for their singular service to the nation. Their problem, if they had any problems in the wide world, was the enviable one of having too much time on their hands.
One afternoon in the Seventies I looked out of the window of a bus at a traffic light in Ballsbridge and saw that the presidential car was beside us. In the back seat sat Erskine Childers with pen in hand and neatly folded newspaper doing a crossword. I am not a crossword-doer myself but I approved thoroughly of this glimpse of presidential life. On some of the many empty afternoons you could order the car around and go for a drive among the people, doing the crossword when stuck in traffic. There was even about it a touch of Haroun Al Raschid, the king in The Arabian Nights who loved to go among his subjects in disguise.
Another thing I approved of was Childers' ambition to read poems in public, though I thought even then that there was too much poetry-reading going on. But Childers was not a poet. He was that rare and wonderful thing, a reader with a wide knowledge and enthusiasm for English poetry, including the Moderns that he had read in his youth. When he tried to arrange a charity reading in the Peacock Theatre I thoroughly approved. Alas, it did not happen, partly because the government of the day was not enthusiastic. But it would surely have added further distinction to the presidential office, as might the gayness of David Norris. No doubt Michael D would not be averse to the idea of a charity poetry reading if he became President but unfortunately he is a published poet himself and the temptation to read his own work to the exclusion of all others would surely be immense.
One of Childers' predecessors, Eamon de Valera, spent 14 years in the Park but what he did there during that time remains a bit of a mystery. It was said that he was working out abstruse mathematical theorems but his sight was failing by then and he was getting on in years. In any case it is doubtful that he would have devoted much time to the great works of literature available to him. The sculptor Seamus Murphy once told me that during a sitting he tried to engage Dev in literary conversation but discovered that all he had read in a long lifetime was Our Boys and Knocknagow Or The Homes of Tipperary.
Paddy Hillery was a keen golfer and during his Presidency he spent much time on the golf course in the effort to improve his game. Sean T O Ceallaigh for his part was a quiet toper. He attended few public functions but when he did he made sure that he had a two-naggin bottle in the tail pocket of his evening or morning coat. I knew the man whose responsibility it was to see to this and he told me that as Sean T was helped into this garment and its collar was adjusted the President would say, "Am I alright now, Arthur?" to which my friend would reassuringly reply, "You're alright; you're gameball now, Sir." After which the President would set off happy in the knowledge that whatever befell he had his own supply.
I hasten to add that I do not think any or all of the above were remiss in honouring the obligations the Presidency imposes. So far as I know they all performed the two duties assigned to the office by the Constitution with efficiency and dispatch. There weren't as many visiting heads of state coming to see us then as there are now but I am sure every one of our Presidents managed a handshake and a polite enquiry or two. And though it might surprise some, Dev in particular was famous for being able to turn on the charm.
It was Mary Robinson who, seeking to extend the scope of the office, engaged in multifarious openings and encouragements, pats on the head for the deserving, inspirational speeches for the rest of us and candles in the windows for the diaspora. At all these things her successor Mary McAleese has proved adept. Indeed she excels her in one which has proved to be a vital necessity of the modern Presidency. That is the ability to make small talk to all sorts of people and on all sorts of levels. Watching herself and the Queen of England together I felt I was watching two great masters of a particular skill having a friendly workout.
My two reservations about the modern Presidency are, I suspect, shared by many people. I do not like politicians of any stripe or nature trying to uplift or inspire me. And nowadays when anybody says, in whatever phraseology, 'yes, you can', or reminds us of the troubles and sufferings we overcame in the past, I feel they are encouraging us to get stuck in and pay the debts we are supposed to have incurred. Whereas I believe the task of the moment is to get Europe to acknowledge it is in very large part responsible for these debts.
And when it comes to charities and openings and good causes I feel it is bad to have politicians having too much to say about what is or what isn't a good cause. My favourites among those who have already declared their candidacy are Michael D Higgins and David Norris, on the grounds that either one is likely to make adequate reference to the thing that I believe does most to uplift and give dignity to mankind, and which anneals and makes joyous the troubles humanity is heir to. That of course is art, to which more than anything else we owe our claim to walk upright on this earth, an acknowledgement which has been singularly understated in presidential circles so far.