This is a country for old men, but the Presidency may require youth

ON the first day of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip’s visit to Ireland they had lunch at Áras an Uachtarain, invited by President Mary McAleese as part of a small group that included Michael Ó Muircheartaigh, the GAA commentator.

What might Ó Muircheartaigh have had in common with the Queen that he was one of the first guests to meet the British delegation?

The Queen, 85, and her husband, 90, probably enjoyed company of an age close to theirs. But, as O’Muircheartaigh told me soon afterwards, he had interviewed one of the Queen’s sons, Prince Edward, years earlier at a greyhound track in London. O’Muircheartaigh gets around, beyond GAA grounds, and is a great man for telling a yarn, making him good company and a good host.

One of my favourites of his stories is how, in New York, he was looking for news from Kerry on championship games. He approached a news-seller on the street who had a massive range of newspapers. “He was Egyptian and I asked him if he had the Kerryman. He said the south Kerry or the north Kerry edition, so I bought both.”

O’Muircheartaigh was compere in College Green in Dublin, in May, in the build-up to the appearance of US President Barrack Obama, introducing the acts and stars from various sports. It may have given him a taste for it, knowing our presidency would soon be vacant, with President McAleese compelled by the constitution to step down in November. O’Muircheartaigh, a teacher-turned-radio commentator, has not disappeared from view since he retired from broadcasting last year. He is due to give live commentary at the finish of the 2011-2012 Volvo Ocean Race, a round-the-world event, in Galway next year. Sailing is another of his loves, but he may not be able to take up that challenge. He is due to decide in the coming days if he will seek a nomination to contest the election for the presidency in October. Should he win, his life will change again, at an age when most people are slowing down.

He doesn’t need to win to get tickets for big matches. He’s at games every weekend, even if he’s not working. I expect that he’ll be in Croke Park to watch Kerry play Mayo in the All-Ireland football semi-final this Sunday and I imagine people will approach him and encourage him to have a cut at securing a nomination for the presidency. He’ll have to postpone something he told me he’d do on his 81st birthday, which is on Sunday— walk to the top of Mount Brandon in his native Kerry, a task beyond many men half his age.

But age is going to be an issue for many people when it comes to O’Muirchearataigh’s candidacy.

The constitution dictates that a presidential candidate be at least 35 years of age — almost twice the age at which somebody can vote — but there is no upper age limit on applicants for the seven-year term. Some of the prominent names spoken of for the presidency are older than retirement age.

Political correctness and good manners dictate you have to be careful about raising these questions, but given that the presidency pays a (reduced) salary of €250,000 per annum (a quarter more than An Taoiseach Enda Kenny gets), the electorate is entitled to ask if a candidate is too old for the job.

Gay Byrne denied that his age was a factor influencing his decision to reject an offer of support from Fianna Fáil for his candidacy, although being 77-years-old and having been hospitalised briefly after a recent health scare — shortly after he had finished an intensive session of recording a television series for RTÉ — must have played on his mind. O’Muireachtaigh, thankfully, is fit and active — a life devoted to exercise and non-consumption of alcohol has helped — but how active would he remain during the seven years that a president has to serve? It is a legitimate, if sensitive, question.

Before deciding whether somebody is too old for the job, you have to define what the job is and how much time it takes to do it properly.

To be honest, it doesn’t appear to be too taxing a position, or at least it doesn’t have to be. The President is not under instruction as to how to work a 35-hour week, if even that. The incumbent can cut the running costs of the Aras by not inviting people to visit; not too many are going to complain or notice if he or she is unavailable to attend other than official State events.

But that is part of the problem: there is still a massive cost to the State involved in having a President if he or she doesn’t act as a public figure. He or she could be accused of indulging in a lucrative semi-retirement.

Whereas the presidency is largely a ceremonial office — to which many people might well be suited — it is not without important powers, albeit limited by the constitution.

Nonetheless, there is good reason why the post has been filled by people with genuine political achievements to their name or with a solid reputation for legal skill and expertise.

There are circumstances in which the President could refuse to allow a Taoiseach to call a general election. The President also has the power to refuse to sign some bills passed by the Oireacthas into law, sending them, instead, to the Supreme Court to test their constitutionality. Both are big decisions to make.

Refusing to allow an election be called would be unprecedented, and, to many, an interference with the democratic right of the electorate to make the most important of decisions. A bill that is passed by the Supreme Court after referral, and which then must be signed into law by the President, cannot be challenged again, which can lead to major problems.

Much of this seems to have been forgotten in what has become something of a quasi-celebrity contest in recent times. O’Muireachtaigh and Byrne are undoubtedly popular figures — more so with the older generations who are more likely to vote — but that says nothing about their intellectual or temperamental suitability for the job that’s involved. That would have to be proven through the campaign to get a nomination and then the campaign itself to get votes — although, for many voters, the suitability to do the job would be secondary as to whether they like, or feel they know, the candidate.

The election of a pensioner to the position of president — and that could be the Labour nominee Michael D Higgins — could be symbolic, in that it would show that this is a country for old men, one in which they are respected and valued for their experience and their service.

But maybe there should be a time when people say they’ve done enough, or admit that they can’t be as active or as able as they were once. Maturity is an asset, but it is possible that at an older age some people have prejudices or have become so set in their ways that they cannot be as inclusive as a president needs to be. Let O’Muireachtaigh, or any other pensioner, have the nomination, but they must be subjected to the same rigorous scrutiny as any younger candidate. Surely they would not want to be treated differently because of their age?

The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

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