FERGUS FINLAY: Presidents should fight for their right to hold highest post in land

It may, right now, seem a bit inconsequential, but we are going to choose a President
of Ireland next year. It will — at least it ought to — matter at the time.

 

Every presidential election we have ever had has been important in its time. Most of them in recent years have been significant events, and have had significant consequences.

There is now increasing speculation about whether we should or will have an election. Voices are emerging to suggest that we don’t need one, that we have an outstanding President already, and that if he wishes a second term it should not be opposed.

I agree with one bit of that. We have an outstanding President.

But we need an election, and if Michael D Higgins wants a second term, he should face an open, respectful and democratic contest. The office he holds matters sufficiently so that its holder should be there, at all times, by the will of the people.

Our President has the absolute right to nominate himself for a
second term at the end of his first one. That’s clear in Article 12 of our Constitution, which says that “former or retiring Presidents may become candidates on their own nomination”. If he wishes to, Michael D should exercise that option.

The clause is there because the serving President takes an oath, when he enters office to (among other things) will “dedicate his abilities to the service and welfare of the people of Ireland”. That oath places the President above and apart from party politics. It makes it impossible, in effect, for a President at the end of his term to be
beholden to any individual or party for a second nomination.

Assuming he wants to serve a second term, what I’d like to see, and what I believe Michael D should do, is declare his intention to seek a second term and invite a democratic contest. People may or may not choose to contest, but they should be free to do so, and be respected for doing so.

Of course I realise that, in saying that, I’ll be accused of having some kind of vested interest. I opposed Michael D when he sought a nomination from the Labour Party the last time, and was well beaten by him in a decent and respectful
internal race. Once beaten, I went on to campaign for him, and as
delighted when he narrowly won what turned out to be a genuinely turbulent and historic campaign.

But here’s the thing. He got his mandate the hard way, and it was a seven-year mandate. Not a 14-year mandate.

We’ve had nine presidents in Ireland. All of them have served with distinction, and all of them had considerable personal qualities. Only three of the nine were re-elected without opposition — Sean T O’Kelly, Patrick Hillery, and Mary McAleese. I was two years old when Sean T was re-elected, and not really in a position to do much about it. In the case of both Patrick Hillery and Mary McAleese, despite the fact that they had both
been sterling holders of the office,
I argued strongly that both should be obliged to compete for a fresh mandate.

In the case of Mary McAleese, I wrote a piece here, in January 2004, about how much I admired her work with people with a disability, in particular. But I still believed that there needed to be a contest that year, because the people of
Ireland, and only the people, had the right to pass judgment on their President. (In fact, I argued back then that the contest I’d love to see would be a contest of ideas between the outgoing President and Michael D Higgins. That wasn’t to be — or maybe I was just a bit ahead of my time!)

Here’s why it matters. You’re going to read a lot of commentary between now and the election (if there is one) that talks about the meaningless of the office, that
describes it as a resting place for tired old politicians. There’ll be all sorts of questions about the salary, and the powers, and whether the President can actually do anything. All of these things — and a lot more —were said before Mary Robinson was elected, before Mary McAleese was elected, before Michal D was elected. None of them were said afterwards.

The truth is that the Presidency matters. It matters as a separate house of the Oireachtas, and an
important pillar of the legislative process. It matters as a guardian
of the Constitution. It matters,
especially in times of crisis, as the representative of the whole people. Different presidents have exercised that latter role especially in different ways.

Cearbhaill O’Dálaigh in his
decision to resign in the face of a political assault on the constitutional office by a cabinet minister. Patrick Hillery in his quiet resistance of Charles Haughey. Mary Robinson in her opening up of
the Presidency and in its symbolic importance to an entire era of
reform. Mary McAleese in her championing of dialogue with key figures in the North.

When the Presidency is contested, it’s always a keen contest with a tight result. Erskine Childers was elected President in 1973 by 52% of the popular vote to Tom O’Higgins’ 48%.

O’Higgins had, seven years earlier, come within 1% of beating Eamon De Valera. And four times — Sean T O’Kelly, Mary Robinson, Mary McAleese, and Michael D Higgins — our President was elected on transfers after failing to secure a majority on the first count.

Mary Robinson was the only
one of them to have been actually behind on the first count, after
perhaps the most contentious election of them all.

But no candidate has ever been swept into office when there has been a contest. It has always been a battle — and that’s how it should be.

But from time to time the office had fallen into disrepute, through no fault of the office holder. After Erskine Childers was elected, 17 years elapsed before there was
another election.

If Dick Spring hadn’t insisted on an election in 1990, there was a real possibility that a quarter of a century would have passed between elections for a democratic office. No wonder people had come to see it as meaningless.

From the moment he was elected, Michael D Higgins has sought to put a conversation about ethical democracy at the heart of his Presidency.

He has spoken about it again and again, at more than 60 public events, and has published a report on his initiative called On the Importance of Ethics.

Speaking about the nature of our democracy, he says this in the report: “At the very heart of republicanism lies the principle of participative citizenship, and the right of all citizens to be represented and to have their voice heard.”

You can’t I think, believe that, or share that view, without an equal conviction that the Presidency itself, as the highest office in the Republic, must belong to the people.

As Michael D has said many times, participative citizenship lies at the heart of a thriving democracy. And participative citizenship demands an election each time the highest office in the land falls vacant.

No candidate has ever been swept into office when there has been a contest — and that’s how it should be


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