Head to Head: Is the Presidency an irrelevant position?

 
 

Hannah Dowling and Conor O’Nolan debate the relevancy of the Irish Presidential position

YES – Hannah Dowling

Do you know the contents of Articles twelve to fourteen of the Irish Constitution? Can you name any of the important pieces of legislation of the last ten years? Can you remember if you ever took an oath and swore allegiance to the United States? If the answer to any of the above is no, you should consider running for President.

Of all the information that is being uncovered during this election, one fact is becoming increasingly apparent: the Irish Presidency is utterly irrelevant. Bar Michael D. Higgins and David Norris, none of the candidates know what the job of President actually entails.

The Presidency is largely a ceremonial role; the hand-shaker-in-chief has no major political power or say in the running of the country. The President is essentially just a figurehead, similar to the Queen, but while the Monarchy is a British institution that is intertwined in its nation’s history, the President is a personality politician changed every seven years. Indeed, before Mary Robinson was elected in the 1990’s, Áras an Uachtaráin seemed to be a retirement home for Fianna Fáil politicians. While there’s no denying that Mary McAleese did a great job during the Queen’s visit, could the Taoiseach not have performed those duties, as he did when Obama visited?

There are two constant defences for the Presidency, the first of which being their role in protecting the constitution against new legislation. Isn’t it the job of the Attorney General to make sure that the laws being passed are constitutional? The second defence is that they act as Ireland’s ambassador all over the world, travelling abroad representing Ireland and strengthening international relations. That sounds like the job description of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, countless Irish Ambassadors and at times the Taoiseach. Indeed, most of roles of the President could be filled by the Ministers of the day. While our Presidents have certainly proved themselves to be nifty gardeners and ribbon cutters, Enda Kenny looks like he knows which way to hold a pair of scissors.

To understand how useless the job of President is, all you have to do is look at the ever-growing circus that is the presidential elections. While the TV debates are beginning to feel more like a grim line-up for a panto, what has actually become obvious is that the majority of the candidates are struggling to understand the office of the Presidency. Sean Gallagher constantly talks of creating jobs, mistaking the Presidency for the head of the IDA. Dana, gushing like an ageing Disney princess, seems to be labouring under the assumption that the Presidency will be the defender of Ireland against the invasion of the European economists. Gay Mitchell is claiming to be a “fighter” with all the passion and vigour of a Teutonic accountant. The candidates speak in tired clichés with repetitive and bland mantras of inspiration and change because that is all the candidates can do, as the President isn’t involved in the everyday running of the country. It’s like a considerably less glamorous Rose of Tralee competition.

In this struggling economy can we really afford the expense of this pointless role? At a time when the Government is cutting support for essential services in education, health and social welfare, can we justify spending a salary of €200,000 plus on a cheerleader-in-chief? While it’s not going to drastically reduce our debt, the amount of money spent on the office of the President should be spent in supporting the people, not the “house of the people”.

I am not proposing that we storm Phoenix Park, but when the idea of reforming the constitution comes into discussion we should take the opportunity to evaluate the role of the President and whether there is a need for this office. For now we can be treated to such illuminating information as the facts that Martin McGuiness shops at ASDA, Mary Davis has a wardrobe modelled on a Special K advert, and that Michael D Higgins is literally reaching out to the public on a platform. Until then I remain convinced that the Presidency is a pointless job.

Rebuttal by Conor O’Nolan

The main problem with this argument is that the writer is confusing ignorance with disinterest. Disinterest in an institution that up until very recently was a closed book isn’t exactly outrageous, and while it has been a great deal more open in the last twenty-one years, there is still work to be done in exposing the general public to the work of the president.

A candidate’s apparent misunderstanding of the job does not render the role irrelevant by any stretch of the imagination. The constitution explains what they have to do, but what they fill the rest of their time with is left fairly grey.

Take Sean Gallagher for example. As President, assisting in job creation isn’t overly far-fetched. He seems to have some degree of influence in the business world. He won’t save the country’s economy, but suggesting that he’s totally helpless is ridiculous. The same applies for all candidates. Presidents might be charged with some ceremonial jobs, but they are very much capable of affecting change from their office.

NO – Conor O’Nolan

As a general rule, it would seem that Irish people have a tendency to be quite politically apathetic. For example, a mere 38.6 per cent of the population voted in the referendum that resulted in the adoption of the Constitution of Ireland. With a response as low as this for the adoption of the foundation stone for all law in the country, perhaps the Irish people as a nation are not overly concerned with what it is that this document contains. This lack of interest is part of the reason why some people seem to believe the role of the president is insignificant. While I will happily acknowledge that the role is largely ceremonial, the Irish President has several important functions.
The President performs an imperative role when it comes to passing laws. They are charged with ensuring that all bills passed by both houses of the Oireachtas are in agreement with the Constitution. They have full discretion to reject any bill which they find to be unconstitutional, and in the case that they’re unsure, have the power to refer the bill to the Supreme Court for its constitutionality to be tested. If the Court finds it to be unconstitutional, the entire bill fails and does not get passed into law, but if the Court deems it constitutional, the President must sign it and it can never be revisited in a court of law again. I think it is extremely important that there is one person who does not represent political party views with this responsibility; they are charged purely with maintaining the Constitution.

There is another discretionary power available to the President under the Constitution, in certain circumstances. If a majority of the Seanad and at least a third of the Dáil petition the President, he or she may refuse to sign a bill if it is of national importance and refer it to the people of Ireland for a vote. This is another power that the President can use to directly influence lawmaking in Ireland.

The President is also responsible for convening and dissolving the Dáil. If a Taoiseach loses majority support in the Dáil, he is compelled to resign unless he requests the President to dissolve the Dáil. The President can, in theory, refuse to dissolve the Dáil and the Taoiseach would be forced to resign immediately. This is a power that has the potential to completely reshape the government.
The President also serves the obvious role of a figurehead for diplomacy, meeting with leaders of various countries on a regular basis. While the President may not have a massive role in the running of the country, they do represent the country both nationally and internationally.

On a national basis, the president also helps to create a sense of community spirit. Mary McAleese opened a community resource centre in Crosskeys, Co. Cavan in 2002 in a small ceremony which had old ladies frantically scrubbing the place from top to bottom for weeks beforehand. What did the President do at this ceremony other than give a short speech and shake a few hands? Nothing, except she made every person who was involved in the project feel that their efforts were worthwhile. No value can be placed on the effect she had here.

It is extremely easy to dismiss the role of the Presidency in this country if you aren’t aware of the role that the President plays. While his or her position isn’t vital to the day-to-day running of the country, the influence they hold nationally and internationally is immeasurable.

Our two previous Presidents were exceptionally well-equipped to serve in their administrative roles as both came from distinguished law backgrounds. They both have also been exceptionally well-liked and approved of by the Irish people. Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese made minorities more welcome in Áras an Uachtaráin and helped advance the peace process with their inclusive nature, proving that the role of the President is anything but irrelevant.

Rebuttal by Hannah Dowling

While I agree that the Marys Robinson and McAleese have been great ambassadors for Ireland, they are the exception to the rule. Apart from these two presidents can many people name the rest of those who have held the office?

With regards to the President and legislation; since 1937, the President has referred a bill fifteen times, with the Supreme Court striking out a bill on seven occasions in seventy-four years, a percentage that is just slightly higher than Gay Mitchell’s. Could this power not be transferred to the Seanad instead?

It is true that the President can be a great cheerleader domestically and internationally, but is the role really a necessity? Do they not perform the roles of what our ambassadors, ministers, council of state and Taoiseach are being paid to do? I do not agree that diminishing the role of the Presidency means not to comprehend the role they perform; I fully understand the constitutional role of the Presidency, and simply do not think it necessary.

Advertisements