Politics: Phoenix Farce
Vestigial by design, symbolic in intent, just why are we so exercised by the presidential election? And why are we being asked to elect an extremely active person to an essentially passive role? Tiarnán O Corráin reports.
As another presidential election rolls around, we are once again confronted with the exhausting and indispensable question. What is the Irish presidency for? Envoy-at-large, moralist-in-chief, hieratic symbol of Irishness, warrior for human rights, healer of ancestral wounds, statesman in purdah, or snoozing dynast – which is it to be?
Or can it be something else entirely?
Exhausted at the prospect of yet another redefinition of the presidency, and by extension, Irishness, some citizens have called for an extension in the term of the incumbent. Mary McAleese is doing alright, the argument goes, and we cannot raise our eyes from the grim economic prospects before us to decide on something as wishy-washy as what the next presidency should be about. Some would scrap it on the basis of economy, presumably the same people that regard the arts as a luxury in the rich times and an unaffordable self-indulgence in the poor.
They are on to something, though. The Irish presidency is as much about performance as power. It is a strange beast. The only constitutional office elected directly by the whole of the electorate, it is also the weakest.
Pause for a moment, if you will, to contemplate the oddness of such an office in a new Republic. Having torn itself free from Britain and the British constitutional tradition with great effort and pain, the leader of the radicals in reconstituting the state created a portmanteau monarchy at the centre of the constitution. Real power was to be concentrated in the regions: alliances of regional grandees would decide the executive function of the state. The only constitutional magistracy elected by all of the people was to occupy a merely ceremonial space. One might call it the empty centre of the constitution, the most glaring example of how inconsistent and unsatisfactory it all is, and how little imagination was put into it.
To hem in an office of such immense democratic legitimacy, quite a lot of constitutional machinery was required. Candidate selection is closely controlled by the political establishment, through the requirement for Oireachtas members or county councils. Small chance, then, of it throwing up a destabilising agent.
Once elected, the president serves in a kind of political purdah, requiring the permission of the government to make an official speech, or to leave the country. The president, by being elected president, loses some of the basic rights of an ordinary Irish citizen. It is a sort of cage, however glorious the bars. The president is symbolic and distant, bowing to the regional coalitions of the Dáil, much like the country itself.
If one was to imagine how the presidency came about, without any knowledge of its history, one could only imagine something similar to the following. The Irish presidency began as a powerful, sometimes tyrannical office. Through a long history of struggle, its powers were curbed, financial control was wrested from it, and sovereignty came to rest in parliament. Gradually it declined into a ceremonial office, retaining only ceremonial vestiges of its former glory, some powers to be used in extremis, and symbols of its former glory such as titular command over the army. It is the very picture of a constitutional monarchy.
But this is not the history of the presidency: it is vestigial by design, symbolic by intent. The Irish president is directly elected, an uncomfortable thing for a symbol to be. Constitutional monarchies come with centuries of prestige and tradition, cultural and historical. The Irish presidency has nothing of this. Every seven (or 14) years, the electorate is placed in the curious situation of having to choose a symbol of itself.
It is hard for a society no longer at ease with itself to choose a single uncontroversial person, especially when there is no real politics involved. A president's views may colour a speech or prompt a heartfelt media intervention, but there is no mechanism for initiating legislation or exercising any executive function. A voice cries out in the Park, and nobody hears it.
When the presidency was a Fianna Fáil fief, occupied in solemn succession by a collection of figures so remote that they might as well have been graven images, the constitutional contradiction remained concealed. There were exceptions, of course: Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh's attempt to intervene in the affairs of a government led to his denunciation and resignation. But for the most part they remained in seclusion and splendour, and things continued.
The Robinson presidency changed everything. A distinguished constitutional lawyer, she was conscious enough of the uneasy nature of the role to extend it. She became the spokesperson for the diaspora and in some ways the country's chief diplomat. Stung by this, the Haughey government exercised its powers over the presidency and denied her the right to travel on occasion. The executive was not for turning. But Robinson's view of the role changed it forever. Now every President must redefine the role, and this is perhaps why the forthcoming election seems so exhausting, and somehow unnecessary. In another apparent contradiction, we are asked to elect an extremely active person to an essentially passive role, and to judge whom we should elect by the degree to and direction in which they exceed their brief.
Should we have it around at all? It is clear that the presidency is a fairly unimaginative transposition of British constitution tradition into the Irish republic, with not much thought given to the disturbing contradictions it entails. What are the implications of divorcing power in a democratic state from the democratic mandate? The German President is a prisoner of the politicians, but he is elected by them.
The Irish president is also a prisoner, but her mandate comes directly from the wellspring of power; the people. Can we afford to take a universal vote so lightly, to expend so much effort on something so slight? Does it not point to yet another flaw in De Valera's creaking constitution?