One of the achievements of Irish democracy to date is that the moral authority of the presidency has been maintained by all eight incumbents, in one case by resignation, and even enhanced, especially by Presidents Mary McAleese, Mary Robinson and Patrick Hillery.
The same could not be said of many other institutions or political offices. What is behind the searching scrutiny of each candidate is the desire to sustain the high standards expected of the future President.
The need for moral authority is because the President is the embodiment of the democratic constitutional order in the Republic of Ireland.
To give two examples abroad where heads of state succeeded or failed as constitutional guardians, one can look back at King Juan Carlos, who foiled an army coup in the early years of Spanish democracy, or at President Hindenburg of Weimar Germany in 1933-4, who passively allowed Hitler to establish a racist dictatorship.
Under our Constitution, the Defence Forces are under the command of the President. The President can limit the room for manoeuvre of a Taoiseach who has lost the confidence of the Dáil, and is not automatically required to grant his request for a dissolution.
Unlike Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, the President can delay the enactment of legislation, by deciding that a bill or part of it should be referred to the Supreme Court for a decision on its constitutionality.
The President must first summon the Council of State, made up of the most senior political and judicial officeholders past and present, plus seven personal nominees.
Having listened to their opinions, the President decides, bearing in mind that legislation referred and found constitutional cannot be further challenged. The purpose of this power is to ensure that the state does not bring legislation into force likely to be unconstitutional.
It is a power exercised sparingly, and not in pursuit of a political agenda or a personal conscientious conviction.
In the event of a President’s inability to perform the functions of the office, for any reason, the Presidential Commission, consisting of the Chief Justice, the Ceann Comhairle of the Dáil and the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, steps in.
A modern President is leader both of the state and civic society, in effect, our first citizen. It is legitimate for the President to set out higher goals to which Irish society should progress, as Erskine Childers did. Former German President Richard von Weiszäcker was a model in this regard. A presidential visit to any part of the country brings encouragement and inspiration to communities and those working on their behalf.
Equally, the President puts forward the best of Ireland’s ideals, achievements and traditions abroad, representing a responsible member of the international community. Given this role, presidents in most countries tend to be people of considerable political, administrative and international experience, which can also be acquired in non-governmental organisations or other bodies that carry out public policy.
Ireland’s membership of the EU and its Treaty adherence is written into the Constitution which the President swears to uphold. Under Article 29, the Constitution cannot be invoked to invalidate EU laws in Ireland. Unlike in the Czech Republic, a eurosceptic President would have no power to obstruct legislative measures arising from EU membership, negotiated by the Government and approved by the Oireachtas. The Constitution does not override or take precedence over EU laws and treaties. The Supreme Court would decide on the necessity of a referendum on Treaty changes, if one were not proposed, as in 1987 after the Crotty challenge.
The modern presidency has been used very successfully to underpin the peace process and to build bridges to the different communities in the North.
The main national task of the next decade is to recover Ireland’s economic independence. The role of the President should be to lead the national effort required to achieve that without distractions.