27 Jun 2022

Opinion: Presidential circus rolls on

THE presidential circus rolls on!

THE presidential circus rolls on!

Even allowing for the fact that August is the traditional silly season, it has represented a circus with a comedy act too many.

It raises questions about the validity of the office. And there can only be one conclusion: surely, now, it is time to consider abolishing the office.

The October election goes ahead, given that the office has to be filled for at least one other term under the Constitution.

But when the circus ends after the election, will some party, or individual politician, have enough courage to propose that it be the final seven-year presidential term?

After all, Enda Kenny, in opposition, proposed the abolition of the Seanad. But, it seems, the Presidency is too sensitive an office for any politician, particularly in the mainstream parties, to suggest its abolition.

It might be useful, indeed, to consider retaining a reformed Seanad as a government watchdog and abolish the presidency.

The Aras could be used for some constructive social purpose, such as a house for the increasing number of unfortunate homeless in this country. Such a move would put an end to presidential circuses. And it would save money. The office has served its function over the decades.

This was particularly true in the case of the outgoing President, Mary McAleese, and her predecessor, Mary Robinson. Mrs Robinson caught the mood of a changing Ireland when she was elected in 1990.

The Republic was becoming more open and pluralist. She reflected that. Also, it was a time a woman was elected to the office, given that Fianna Fail had turned the Aras into a retirement home for a favourite son.

Mrs McAleese and her husband, Dr Martin McAleese, have done much work, mostly private, in smoothing over community tensions in the North.

The contribution made by Dr Patrick Hillery, in ensuring that the office retained its independence in the face of a marauding and power-hungry Charlie Haughey, should not be underestimated.

When Mr Haughey tried to contact Dr Hillery in the early 1980s, in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade him not to dissolve the Dail so that Mr Haughey could be Taoiseach, he was firmly rebuffed.

But what of the other Presidents? Nothing much to report, except carrying out the ceremonial functions of the office and ensuring that constitutional requirements were met. Anyway, time has moved on.

For the foreseeable future, the challenge for this country will be to win the economic war. Realistically, the President of the day can do little to boost the country’s economic welfare.

True, he or she can go abroad and work on the goodwill factor. But in these straitened economic times, the goodwill factor counts for little when companies decide to invest in Ireland. Cold, clinical and pragmatic decisions are made.

We are hearing much talk from the candidates about what they could achieve on the economic front if elected President. It is nothing more than campaign waffle.

We are a very different society now to the time when the tired, or perhaps not so tired, old men moved from Leinster House to the Park as a kind of sinecure. Eamon de Valera was the classic case.

Having held on and on as Taoiseach, refusing to make way for the dynamic Sean Lemass, he finally opted for the Park as a very old man in 1959.

Had he gone much earlier – in 1948, for instance, when Sean T O’Kelly was the successful Fianna Fail candidate – history might be much kinder to him today.

He had guided Ireland through its policy of neutrality during the Second World War.

He had earlier been one of those opting for constitutional politics, helping to establish the new State. But he could not let go of the levers of power. And he went on to be one of those senior politicians who presided over appalling stagnation in the 1950s.

Finally, at the end of that decade, he was gently advised by some of his contemporaries that it was time to move on. And the Park was available.

He did little with that office, apart from waffle his way at ceremonial occasions. Fianna Fail was in power for most of his two terms, which helped matters from his point of view.

He undoubtedly breached the constitutional provisions of the office in 1969 when he intervened and advised Kevin Boland against resigning from the Fianna Fail Cabinet as the Northern troubles blew up.

Fianna Fail’s Erskine Childers confounded the pundits in 1973 when he defeated Fine Gael’s Tom O’Higgins, who had run Dev to 10,000 votes in 1966.

In that election, Dev was considered a certainty by a huge majority, given that it was the 50th anniversary of the Rising and he was the last surviving commandant.

So, seven years later, Mr O’Higgins looked like a strong favourite. But Mr Childers won was what was then, and is now, essentially a personality driven election.

When Mr Childers died suddenly, he was replaced by an agreed candidate, Cearbhall O’Dalaigh, an eminent judge.

But Mr O’Dalaigh was clearly ill-suited to the office. He resigned when called a “thundering disgrace’’ by a Fine Gael Minister afer he referred legislation to the Supreme Court.

While his resignation might have been justified, although an apology was offered, he clearly otherwise felt very uncomfortable in the role.

Perhaps the new State got it right when Dr Douglas Hyde was the agreed first president in 1938, in line with the Constitution drafted by Dev a year earlier.

An eminent gaelic scholar, he was 78 years old when made President, although extremely active physically and intellectually.

He broadcast to the United States in his first Christmas in the Aras, restricting most of his remarks to the Irish language.

He became ill in 1940, but he continued to carry out the functions of the office until his retirement in 1945.

He was replaced by Sean T. O’Kelly, as Fianna Fail, having found its political feet, decided the office should be for one of their own.

Doubtless, even then, Dev had his eye on it as a nice retirement present from the State down the road. Today, a very different Ireland is facing unprecedented economic challenges.

A generation of political leaders, illustrating astonishing levels of ineptitude, have plunged this country into a dark fiscal era. The economic war, with all its hardship, has to be won.

Many people are stunned, if a little amused in a dark sense, by the idiocy of the presidential campaign.

There could be much indifference to it by election time in October as the economy is well and truly back centre-stage. It is no more than an expensive irrelevancy.

The constitutional duties of the President could be transferred to a Council of State, which exists already, or, indeed, a reformed Seanad if a decision was made to retain it.

A well paid public personage, sipping tea in the Aras, is not something we can afford in the current climate.

So, hopefully, some party will be courageous enough to suggest that the current circus should be the last presidential election in the State’s history.

Is that kind of frankness too much to ask for from our politicians?

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