IN THE 35 years following the introduction of the current constitution there were only three presidents. Even historians would be hard-pressed to recall anything of real historical significance involving them.
Douglas Hyde was essentially honoured with the post in recognition of his seminal role in the establishment of the Gaelic League. Shortly after becoming president, however, he suffered an incapacitating stroke and essentially vegetated for the remainder of his seven-year term.
He was succeeded by Seán T O’Kelly who was put out to pasture in the Park because he tended to shoot his mouth off a bit too much. The president, who needs the Government’s permission to speak publicly, is the only person in the country without the right of free speech.
Seán T was a dapper little man who had a dignified presence, but did not play the most visible of roles. He was introduced to the captains of the competing teams on all-Ireland final day.
In 1953 Armagh became the first team from Northern Ireland to compete in the all-Ireland football final. There was a record attendance that day. As the president walked out on the field, a man with a northern accent was heard to shout: “Cut the grass, so we can see the wee man!”
Eamon de Valera was also put out to pasture in the Park, but in a sense it was appropriate that he was president during the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Easter Rebellion and the golden jubilee of the establishment of Dáil Éireann.
He was the last surviving commandant of the rebellion, and in 1969 he was one of the handful still alive who had been elected to the first Dáil 50 years earlier.
Although de Valera was supposedly above politics, he did involve himself in party matters. There was a story that Donogh O’Malley was summoned to the Áras after making a public spectacle of himself in a Limerick hotel.
We will probably never know what was actually said at the Áras, but O’Malley told his own colourful version, which was undoubtedly apocryphal.
According to O’Malley, Dev said he had been hearing stories about him. “And I heard stories about you and Kathleen O’Connell, but I didn’t believe them,” O’Malley supposedly replied. And then they talked about the weather.
In the lead-up to the Arms Crisis, Kevin Boland became so disillusioned with Jack Lynch’s leadership that he resigned from the cabinet. But before this was made public, he was summoned to the Áras where Dev persuaded him to withdraw his resignation in the interest of party unity. Peter Berry, secretary of the Department of Justice, was another who was disillusioned with Lynch’s leadership, but for opposite reasons. He was annoyed the Taoiseach had done nothing to stop the conspiracy to import arms. He actually used de Valera to force Lynch’s hand.
Berry had been warning Justice Minister Michael Moran about the conspiracy. Moran said he would tell the Taoiseach, but nothing happened. As Moran had an obvious drink problem, Berry could not be certain Lynch was being informed. Of course, he had told Lynch himself some months earlier and nothing had happened, so he decided to use the president to compel Lynch to act.
Berry asked de Valera what should he do when he did not know if important information was reaching the Taoiseach. He realised de Valera would tell him to go directly to Lynch. Then when he went to the Taoiseach, he said the president had advised him to do so. He put pressure on Lynch by deliberately giving the impression de Valera knew what was going on, even though he had not actually given any details to the president.
The election of Erskine Childers as fourth president made news around the world in 1973 because he was a Protestant and Northern Ireland was at the time wracked by sectarian violence that seemed like a throwback to earlier centuries. His election was probably the most potent gesture demonstrating that even though the Republic was overwhelmingly Catholic, it was not involved in sectarian bitterness.
Childers’s term was cut short by his sudden death the following year and Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh was selected as an agreed candidate to succeed him. But he only lasted for a couple of years because he had the temerity to take his office seriously by referring security legislation to the Supreme Court.
As a former chief justice of the Supreme Court, there were few if any people more qualified to question the constitutionality of legislation. But politicians had already formed the impression that the president should only do what he was told. Defence Minister Paddy Donegan called Ó Dálaigh “a thundering disgrace”.
Denounced for doing his duty, Ó Dálaigh resigned in protest and Paddy Hillery became the third president in as many years. He was a safe pair of hands. Other than his ceremonial duties, about the only thing he did was to call a press conference to deny rumours he was having an extramarital affair or that he was going to resign. The country was virtually in political turmoil and his main claim to fame in the Áras was that he did nothing — or rather he would not even answer the phone. During his first seven-year term, there were six different Taoisigh. Liam Cosgrave gave way to Jack Lynch, who was replaced by Charlie Haughey, who lost out to Garret FitzGerald, who was ousted by Haughey and then replaced him again.
Mary Robinson played a more visible role during her term. She was elected essentially because people did not trust Brian Lenihan to be president while his erstwhile friend Charlie Haughey was Taoiseach.
BUT Haughey did not last much longer himself and Robinson obviously became so bored with the office she could not get out fast enough. She did not even complete her full term.
In as much as she can, President Mary MacAleese has done a magnificent job. She started out by standing up to the Archbishop of Dublin by receiving communion in a Protestant church. The country had come a long way since 1949 when John A Costello and members of his government (with the exception of Noel Browne) refused to attend the Protestant church services at the funeral of the late President Douglas Hyde. De Valera, then leader of the Opposition, stayed away, too. He had the future President Childers represent him in the church. With the exception of Noel Browne, they were all afraid of a belt of the crosier.
With her considerable talents, Mary McAleese is wasted in the Áras, along with the millions that the office costs. There is the salary of the president and her staff, the cost of the upkeep of the Áras and its staff, providing the president with a car, a driver, and a police escort car, as well as extravagant pensions for former presidents, and ultimately the cost of their state funerals.
As both head of state and head of government, the president of the United States combines the roles of Taoiseach and president in this country. Yet the Taoiseach — even without his deferred €38,000 pay raise — currently receives almost €20,000 a year more than the US president, and the president of Ireland is paid over €40,000 more annually. For what? There are much more useful things the State could do with all that money.