FERGUS FINLAY: Only the President can ensure we properly debate the state of the nation

DEAR President,
If you’ll forgive me for saying so, aren’t we living in extraordinary constitutional times?

I’ve been reading again some of the things you’ve been saying lately, and it seems to me that you are seeking, within the constraints of your office as you see them, to reflect some of the anger of the Irish people at what has been going on in our country. But with respect, President, isn’t it time for you to be more explicit? I can’t imagine a time in our history when it was more important for the President to be addressing the nation, honestly and openly, about the challenges that now face us. Last week you said “In facing up to the present difficulties, there needs to be candour, accountability and debate to ensure that the grave failures of the past are never repeated”. I couldn’t agree with you more.

The trouble is that the speech you gave, at the Irish Book Awards, wasn’t reported adequately at all. Two of our national newspapers more or less ignored the speech (although they covered the event) and the third picked a different extract entirely to report on. They had you calling on citizens to “maintain a positive outlook through present difficulties and rise to the challenge that the country is facing”. They went on to report you as saying that “it is in Ireland’s best interests to lift our hearts, minds and voices beyond mere recrimination so that (we) can put the present difficulties behind us”.

In other words, you may have been seeking to convey some sense of the anger people are feeling, and a sense too of urgency about the need for much more truth about how we have been put into this mess. There was a similar tone about some of the remarks in your Patrick’s Day message, when you said that Ireland was being “sorely tested” by the colossal failure of the culture of short-term gain and quick profiteering. Again, though, the message wasn’t really picked up. You prefaced your remark about the need for candour, accountability, and debate by saying that you wanted to “fully respect the nature of your role”. That seems to me to imply that you see yourself as limited, rather than enabled, by the mandate you have. With respect, I disagree. In fact, I think the very fact that you imply a limit encourages your remarks to be ignored, as indeed they were.

As a citizen, who respects both the limitations of your office and its influence, I believe you can go further — and need to go further. You have the power, under Article 13 of the Constitution, to convene a meeting of either or both Houses of the Oireachtas. The only requirement in that article is that you would consult with the Council of State. In other words, with the appropriate consultation, you can act in this matter on your own discretion.

In short, you can ensure that the state we are in is debated, with whatever degree of candour and accountability as is necessary, in the only place it hasn’t happened yet – our national parliament. I’m sure you must agree that it is absolutely absurd that the state of the nation is being hotly debated on the airways, and indeed in every home in the country, and yet our national parliament cannot seem to debate it at all.

Our Taoiseach made it clear (as clear as he ever makes anything) at the weekend that there is no intention whatever of putting the “deal” made with the IMF before the Dáil for decision. Statements, apparently, are possible, but no vote.

But look at what has happened. We, the people of Ireland, have been given no choice, no say whatever, in this matter. Our government has agreed to take money from third parties, and has mortgaged our future in the process. That money is to be doled out as we meet penal conditions — including an unsustainable interest rate — and we are to be judged every quarter on our “performance” before the next moiety is given. We have, in one stroke, abandoned all our capacity to make our own decisions. Despite the hollow and sham protestations of the government, we have utterly abandoned our sovereignty as a country.

You took an oath the day you were inaugurated to maintain the Constitution of Ireland. That Constitution, in Article 1, declares that “the Irish nation hereby affirms its inalienable, indefeasible, and sovereign right to choose its own form of Government, to determine its relations with other nations, and to develop its life, political, economic and cultural, in accordance with its own genius and traditions”. In the preamble to the Constitution, reference is made to the “rightful” independence of our nation. Article 5 says, simply and clearly, that “Ireland is a sovereign, independent, democratic state”.

All that is gone, at least for the foreseeable future. And it has been given away by a government that cannot win a confidence vote. Two members of that government have themselves declared that Ireland needs, and must have, a general election. In an extraordinarily self-serving decision, they have decided that they will continue to draw ministerial salaries, and enjoy all the perks of office, until the measures designed to start giving effect to this new regime are settled. Then, and only then, will they leave the government in which they have effectively declared a lack of confidence.

If the government were to lose a confidence vote, you would have some more discretion in how to deal with the government of the day. But I would argue that you have more than enough discretion to ensure that our parliament meets, with the specific task of debating and deciding whether this change in our status is warranted.

We are moving, without debate, from independence to dependence, from sovereign to beholden. We are changing from a democratic state to one where all the key decisions will be made by third parties, never elected, in no way answerable to the people. And all of that is being done by a government which, through its own actions, has squandered the mandate of the people and forfeited their respect.

In that situation, President, you may be the only elected office-holder in Ireland with a proper democratic mandate. Your promise under oath is to place your abilities at “the service and welfare of the people of Ireland”. Now is the time, I believe, for you to insist that our national parliament be placed in a position where it, and it alone, will decide how Ireland is to be governed in future. Not only can you call the parliament into session for this purpose, you have the right yourself to make a statement to that meeting, and in effect to lead the debate. You have publicly called for candour, accountability, and debate. If we are to pull together through this defining crisis, we need leadership of that kind. The last vestiges of democracy demand that the properly-elected parliament be given an opportunity to debate and decide our future. Your office gives you the power to achieve at least that, and your oath gives you the responsibility.

With best wishes,

Fergus


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