GERARD HOWLIN: This may be the last presidential election decided on these shores

 

Fast-forward seven years from now and candidates who clinch a nomination for the presidency are travelling not just the country, but touring the world.

Unfortunately, the world has gone to hell in a handcart. In hindsight Donald Trump, if at times a little bombastic, was essentially harmless compared to what came after. And that is to speak only of the US.

Across the Irish Sea, Scotland has seceded from the UK, while prime minister Jacob Rees-Mogg routinely sails gunboats up and down the English Channel to turn back illegal immigrants fleeing some autocrat or other in Eastern Europe. He has slashed the British government subsidy to Northern Ireland. The demands of Tánaiste Mary Lou MacDonald for a border poll are about to be implemented. Parts of East Belfast are no-go areas for the PSNI.

All that is fantasy, I hope.

Except, if the Government has its way, candidates for the presidency in 2025 will have to tour the world for votes. We are on course for a referendum next June, on the same day as local and European elections, to change the Constitution to allow Irish citizens wherever they live, vote in presidential elections. That will automatically more than double the existing
electorate and ensure most of it is outside the State. Not since the end of the Roman Empire will a citizenry at home be a minority in its own polity.

Last December, Tánaiste Simon Coveney “looked forward to finalising” a proposal “allowing Irish citizens all over the world have the option to vote in presidential elections”. He promised that “it will change and broaden the nature of the presidency for the better...”

This week his department clarified that. For now “it remains the intention of the Government to hold the referendum on the same day as the local and European Parliament elections, on May 24 next year. The necessary preparations for this are ongoing at official level within the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government.”

So, no finalisation in sight, and no sense of what will fundamentally change the presidency forever, before the presidential election. The conclusion of the term we are voting for will be profoundly affected by what comes next. That’s a lot of stuff to sweep under the carpet. Clearly, a decision has been taken not to say now what we will only be told later.

Yesterday, on this page, Fergus Finlay discussed US President Trump’s arrival on or around inauguration day — Sunday, November 11 — for a visit of an as yet undefined duration. The beleaguered Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy is also the local government minister, which includes elections. He has been unfairly criticised for the inauguration’s timing, which clashes with Armistice Day. In fact, November 11 is a constitutional requirement, triggered by the timing of the expiration of the current term of office.

The political import is that, inevitably, the debate among putative presidential candidates will raise the question of whether a candidate, if elected, would greet Trump. Solidarity TD Mick Barry put it up to the incumbent President, remembering that “protests were plenty when Reagan visited in 1984” and were “addressed by a leader of the campaign called Michael D Higgins”. The question Barry put bluntly is whether “the same man — now part of the capitalist establishment — [is] preparing a red carpet for Trump? He should be asked the question.”

Indeed he should, and he will. He will also meet the visiting head of state. It is the Government’s decision to make and it has already decided that . The Constitution is absolutely clear. Article 13.9 provides that

the powers and functions conferred on the President by this constitution shall be exercisable and performable by him only on the advice of the Government, save where it is provided by this Constitution that he shall act in his absolute discretion...

In other words, save for specific presidential powers, the Government decides. This is doubled down on in foreign affairs. War can only be declared with the assent of the Oireachtas, treaties enshrined into domestic law only with its consent — and, lest the point be lost about where power in foreign affairs lies, the Constitution provides that “the President shall not leave the State during his term of office save with the consent of the Government”.

In foreign affairs particularly, the President is an instrument of the elected government and his room for initiative specifically circumscribed.

The consequences of a presidency engorged by an electorate, which, unlike any other in the world, would be largely based outside the State, are potentially instantly destabilising.

To get elected a significant mandate would be required abroad. Potentially a president would win well, beyond our borders, but lose the vote at home. To get votes, the political reality from Birmingham, to Brisbane and to Boston is that local feeling would have to be encompassed to harvest support. It would give the successful candidate moorings not just outside the State but beyond the contours of our own Constitution.

The raucous process of appealing for votes on a large scale abroad would inevitably politicise the office, and at least implicitly realign its relationship with the government.

We have an electorate of 3.2m but a further 3.5m citizens live outside the State including Northern Ireland. And that’s before another passport is issued.

Including the Irish abroad in the structures of the State is an idea that has merit. The Seanad could be reformed now, without a constitutional referendum to deliver on that.

Instead something fundamentally disruptive, but still unseen, is planned. If successful, and even Irish constitutional referenda sometimes are, this is the last time we will elect a president along current lines. The coming term of office will end in an entirely different scenario. But the dynamic effect of political change won’t wait for 2025. If a referendum is passed in 2019 and if a candidate other than the incumbent is chosen on October 26, a new dynamic will begin the day after the referendum is passed.

An incumbent president, looking into their wing mirrors and considering their chances of re-election, will instinctively act on a broader stage internationally, and more tellingly seek to act more independently. How could a government exercise its power to refuse a president largely elected abroad, from travelling abroad?

Yet the presence of the head of state, in any capacity, in any other country is a political statement and an act of state intended here for the elected government to decide on.

So back to Donald Trump and to Mick Barry’s question for President Michael D Higgins.
The role of the presidency, including welcoming visiting heads of state from abroad, is to represent the state, not to determine its foreign policy. Regrettably a proposal to alter that fundamentally remains unseen.


More in this Section

Land for peace is fool’s gold when it comes to the Middle East

Ballot paper competition rightly makes for wide-open competition


 

Join the conversation - comment here

House rules for comments - FAQ

 

Breaking Stories

Garda body hits out at 'extraordinary development' as Harris cuts all discretionary overtime

Teachers avoid jail over ‘ugly’ brawl

Man found in Meath bog was unlawfully killed, inquest hears

Bunny Carr: A man of questions and answers

More From The Irish Examiner