Tuesday 21 May 2019

Let in the light on President's office

President Michael D Higgins. Photo: Arthur Carron
President Michael D Higgins. Photo: Arthur Carron


As it now seems certain that there will be a presidential election later this year, it is a good time to state that the office of the President of Ireland should be absolutely transparent and, as it is the recipient of significant public funds, should no longer be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. At a minimum, the publication of such information would assist the public in their understanding of the office and its functions, something which is to be recommended.

Ireland has been well served by its presidents back to the election of the first, Douglas Hyde, who held the office from 1938 to 1945. Indeed, all the presidents have notably contributed to the office and are held in high regard by the public, notwithstanding the occasional controversy, some of which were more serious than others. The high regard for the office was particularly evident in recent decades following the election of this country's first female President, Mary Robinson (1990-1997) and her successor, Mary McAleese (1997-2011). In many ways, these women helped to redefine the office and made it more relevant at a time when it had become somewhat remote from the people.

Similarly, the current President, Michael D Higgins, has come to be affectionately regarded by the public after his successful first term, during which he has also brought his unique, although occasionally controversial, sensibility to the office. But he too has been an admirable President, no less appropriate and of his time than were his predecessors, a particular high point being his attendance and speech at a state banquet in Windsor Castle which cemented good relations between Ireland and the United Kingdom after many difficult decades.

Relations between the two islands are again somewhat strained, arising out of negotiations between the European Union and the UK on Britain's exit from the EU. The future relationship between Ireland and the UK is likely to be a theme in a presidential election here. Similarly, the future relationship between Ireland north and south and between the different traditions on the island of Ireland is certain to feature. More broadly, a presidential election will also afford the opportunity to have a less heated 'conversation' about the future of a country which has been radically transformed by way of referendum decisions in recent years.

As part of the campaign, however, we would suggest that the transparency of the office itself should also feature. In this era of open and meaningful engagement with the public, it is no longer appropriate that the office of the President should be exempt from proper scrutiny; indeed, it is to be commended that the office be further opened to allow in the light, not least because it will allow a new generation of voters to understand and appreciate what a fine office it is and how admirably all of its holders have served the Republic in constant transition and occasionally at times of great difficulty. There is nothing to hide.

Sunday Independent

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