GERARD HOWLIN: Ballot paper competition rightly makes for wide-open competition

Presidential elections are that rare example of turkeys voting for Christmas, in the sense that except for a single bird destined to nest in the Áras, the others will be roughly stuffed before being roasted.

A healthy process that underlines the durability of the Constitution, inspired by a now largely derided de Valera, is again destined to give wide choice. That’s good for democracy. And it’s also a good comeuppance for the institutionalised who had an aversion to the prospect of the incumbent being challenged.

In the heyday of the now defunct two-and-a-half party system, effectively only two candidates could emerge. Each represented tribal civil war politics. The electoral reversal of fortune for the two larger parties leaves open not just the certainty of Sinn Féin fielding a candidate but also the clear possibility still of independent Oireachtas members doing likewise.

If they do, this will be the first time in the history of the State that independents put a candidate on the presidential ballot paper. It’s timely in light of the fact that we, the people, gave them 17.8% of the vote and 23 Dáil seats in 2016. That is not to speak of the 193 out of 949 councillors at the local elections in 2014.

Independents are only one element of relatively new diversity. So too is a much larger Sinn Féin, as well as Solidarity, People before Profit, Greens, and Social Democrats. What the Constitution robustly provides for, through the nominating powers of just four local authorities or 20 Oireachtas members, is that this diversity can get on the ballot paper and make its case to the people. It seems to me the system is working, and the wide-open competition is a very good sign.

I believe independents in the Oireachtas will facilitate a nomination and, critically, that the field considered will not be limited to also-rans in the local authority championship hurdle. An entirely new name may well emerge in the next two weeks as a nominee for president, before the close of nominations on September 26.

The scene is set for President Michael D Higgins, Senator Joan Freeman and Seán Gallagher, with Gavin Duffy just one local authority to go to get over the line.

Ballot paper competition rightly makes for wide-open competition 

The certainty of a Sinn Féin candidate awaits the announcement of a name. Ireland South MEP Liadh Ní Riada is much speculated on. But I don’t know. The announcement of John Finucane next Saturday would, by dint of some surprise, steal the spotlight for a time. His Northern background and family history would shape a narrative.

That narrative would fit the larger story his party is intent on telling. Keywords include all-
island, Brexit, and border poll. In light of mixed reactions to the candidacy of Martin McGuinness seven years ago, Finucane’s candidacy would partially inure the party against its own past. The political assassination of his father would be its own reply to political charges of collusion in murder levelled at Sinn Féin.

Finucane’s candidacy, if adopted by Sinn Féin, would also fit with the repeated questioning by its councillors of putative candidates on issues around Irish citizens in Northern Ireland and the diaspora generally. It has been a point of particular emphasis in their conversation thus far. Far from avoiding repetition, I would like to embrace it on this issue.

Last week on this page I pointed out that the Government plans a referendum next June on widening the presidential franchise to include citizens in Northern Ireland and abroad. That instantly more than doubles the electorate. Further uptake of citizenship among the potentially eligible could literally multiply the numbers. It would fundamentally and irrevocably change the delicate relationship within the Constitution between president and government. Nowhere would that be more potentially destabilising than in relation to foreign affairs.

Ballot paper competition rightly makes for wide-open competition

As head of state, the presence of the president anywhere in the world is a political statement. That’s why the Constitution requires the office holder to have the express permission of the government to leave the state. Enlarging the presidential electorate to includes swathes around the globe, to an extent unknown in any other electoral system, not only enlarges the mandate of the office, it implicitly enlarges at least its symbolic responsibilities, in ways that could too easily clash with the policy of the government of the day.

The repetition is that I wrote all of this last week. The purpose of rewriting now is that then there were over seven weeks to polling day. Now there are over six. The field is being finalised for the term of office of a president for which, if the Government has its way, the boundaries will be fundamentally altered within the first year of a seven-year term. Last December we were promised that this proposed referendum was being finalised. Nine months later, we have no knowledge of the question to be put to fundamentally change the presidency.

The issue for the campaign — and it is both essential and increasingly urgent — is that we should be told what the Government has in mind so that we can question the candidates on how they would respond in office to a hugely increased global mandate, if the planned referendum is passed.

The president has no executive functions in health or housing. The president does, however, have an essential responsibility navigating the constitutional relationship with government.

We are entitled to test candidates in public debate on an issue that would transform the office permanently

The Government too has clear, if entirely undelivered on, responsibilities. It is proposing a referendum to deliver fundamental change it has failed to speak about. It has had seven years’ notice of this presidential election.

It knows full well the critical nexus between the two. Its silence, which borders on the tactic of the constitutional sleiveen, is unacceptable. Candidates for president are entitled to know what is planned, and so are we. It is a “Paddy likes to know” moment and it’s not going away.

If serious thought is given to, or imminent finalisation arrived at, as promised by Tánaiste Simon Coveney last December, it should be shared.

How does Government intend to maintain effective, full control of foreign affairs when a president understandably seeks to fulfil a global mandate? How, in respect of that mandate, does the Government intend the president to interact with it in light of the important power it holds relating to the president’s capacity to travel abroad, including to Northern Ireland?

What exactly is the train of thought in Government Buildings and Iveagh House on ultimately unknowable — but not unrealisable — consequences of a presidency with a global mandate and a representational footprint that dwarves its own? These are not just legitimate questions, they are absolutely essential issues, for a debate that has just over six weeks to run.


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