When the Prince of Wales contemplates the matter, he must sometimes envy President Michael D Higgins, who seems to have so much more leeway in expressing his opinions .
Whenever Prince Charles – who is now effectively regent, since Queen Elizabeth is in such frail health – is heard to speak his mind about anything other than the blandest of topics, he gets thrashed by the British media and constitutional experts.
President Higgins, on the other hand, can make quite overtly political statements about his favourite causes, and no politician ever seems to lay a cautious hand on his shoulder, saying: “Uachtarán – the office of President is supposed to be non-political.” There are some grumblers on social media, but President Higgins is well-liked and popular, and – I’m just guessing here – most Irish people are probably happy with his performance.
Last week, Charles was privately heard to denounce Boris Johnson’s policies, most especially the plan to dispatch illegal immigrants to Rwanda in an effort to deter Channel crossings in small boats (nearly 30,000 illegal immigrants made that perilous journey last year).
Charles described the idea as “appalling”, and in this, by the way, he was supported by senior churchmen, both Anglican and Catholic.
However, he was trounced in the mainstream media, with screaming headlines of “No politics!” and serious warnings against the dangers of royals “meddling” in the political sphere.
Meanwhile, President Higgins made a somewhat controversial comment on the heinous massacre of up to 50 Catholics at St Francis Xavier church in Owo, Nigeria – originally built, apparently, by Irish missionaries.
The President properly commiserated with the victims of such a terrible event, but went on to say local pastoralists shouldn’t be scapegoated, and blamed “climate change” for these troubles.
He was rebuffed by the Bishop of Ondo, Jude Arogundade, who described this comment as “incorrect and far-fetched”. President Higgins has since denied he linked the attack to climate change, saying he was simply commenting on the plight of pastoral people in the region.
He has, on many occasions over the course of his two terms, made speeches that some regard as directly political – from condemning the British empire to extolling the European Union – and many of the themes of his discourses reflect his left-wing political background (although since the economic collapse of Venezuela, he has rather eased off on lauding Hugo Chavez and his socialist legacy). Yet most people probably don’t object to – and many people may support – the President’s general values. As he was elected with a landslide, perhaps no government politician would dare raise the point that the role of head of state is expected to be non-partisan and apolitical.
Charles – especially as he draws nearer to becoming king – is judged much more harshly. Although his views are often supported by the good and the great, such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, he is mocked for some of his loftier ideals.
When he pleads compassion for refugees, his critics ask how many illegal immigrants are accommodated at Clarence House. When he urges the public to embrace organic farming and quit using artificial fertiliser – as he flogs his own brand of organic biscuits, Duchy Originals – it is caustically pointed out that most people are worried sick about the price of ordinary food, cannot possibly afford the organic stuff (or the expensive Duchy biscuits) and, moreover, artificial fertilisers and pesticides have brought immeasurable advances in food production globally.
Anyone, prince or pauper, is entitled to have a personal opinion, but British monarchs have learned the hard way that they must never interfere in politics. George V was an ardent unionist and hated Ireland leaving the United Kingdom, but he buttoned his lip and conscientiously tried to “hold the ring” between John Redmond and Edward Carson. His wife, Queen Mary, tried to intervene to save Terence MacSwiney’s life on hunger strike, but was sharply told to mind her own business by prime minister Lloyd George.
The succeeding monarch, George VI, was also privately upset about Ireland leaving the Commonwealth in 1948, but knew to be very cautious about expressing an opinion.
British monarchs are ever reminded that Charles I was beheaded to curtail the power of the monarchy. Ever since then, parliament is supreme and the monarch must remain totally neutral. As the reign of Charles III approaches, he must be very prudent about his personal views.
The President of Ireland has a finite term: he won’t be in place for ever. For that reason, among others, there is rather more indulgence of any opinions.
A monarch is not elected, but is in the job for life.
All the more reason why, on any controversial issue, he must stay absolutely schtum.