IVAN YATES: Let’s have a shake-up of the Áras – before the next beauty contest

The first salvos have been fired in the race for Áras an Uachtaráin.

The political vacuum caused by the lack of general or by-elections has whetted an appetite for a fictional beauty contest. Interesting, worthy contenders are throwing shapes at seeking nominations and flying kites as to their acceptability. This is a phoney fight. While a new incumbent will replace Mary McAleese after November 2011, the main political parties will await the summer before revealing their nominations.

The critical issue is timing. If a general election isn’t held before next July, candidates will predominate from outside the current crop of senior active parliamentarians. If the general election and likely consequent change of government does occur by this juncture, the landscape of potential contestants will alter radically.

Disappointed wannabe FG/Labour ministers (eg, Richard Bruton or Ruairi Quinn) could seek a consolation prize. If FF are in opposition, many former ministers might opt for the Park instead of the isolation of opposition. The party bosses will keep their options open until the summer recess.

The appetite of the present opposition parties for an electoral battle over the presidency will be maximised if the lifetime of this Dáil extends beyond next autumn. They will use a national ballot on the head of state as a battering ram against the Government and choose a personality that best espouses their political image and identity. Should FG and Labour occupy Government Buildings they might seek to cut a deal with a disillusioned FF on an agreed candidate. No clarity will emerge as to our next president until the holding of the general election is fixed.

This analysis is cemented in the reality that the political parties have a de facto grip on the nomination process. The signatures of 20 TDs control the key gateway for the candidate. While the councils nomination route yielded the candidacies of Dana and Derek Nally, they lacked the political organisation and resources to succeed. The keys of the Áras are effectively held by FF, FG and Labour. Only arising out of their selection process can an outsider have viable prospects of success.

The fundamental contradiction for a candidate is that he or she must have some party affiliation to get the inside track of selection whereas, upon election, they must be above party politics.

The present runners and riders in the presidential betting are all outside the Dáil’s front benches. The top three in the odds are Fergus Finlay, David Norris and Brian Crowley. Fine Gael’s speculative contenders include John Bruton, Maireád McGuinness, Seán Kelly and Gay Mitchell. Interesting outsiders are Mary Davis (CEO of Special Olympics) and Emily O’Reilly (Ombudsman). They could be considered in the context of following the same route as Mary McAleese – presentable women with strong CVs who can’t be blamed for our economic woes and don’t carry FF baggage.

The elephant in the room is Bertie Ahern. The media may be vitriolic. Victims of the bust would relish the opportunity for revenge at the ballot box. There was clear evidence of this against his brother Maurice in the Dublin Central by-election last year. His dismal showing amounted to a fraction of Bertie’s previous vote. Ahern has sufficient contacts in the parliamentary party to secure a competitive selection result against any outsider. Thereafter, he could secure 25% of first preferences, comprising hardcore FF support and local Dublin loyalty.

His parliamentary and ministerial CV make him equipped to do the job. Moreover, as a vote-getter, he is the only Irish politician ever to have won three consecutive general elections. He obtained more non-FF transfers than any previous leader. He’s available. It may seem a ridiculous proposition. Bertie always benefited from being underestimated by his opponents.

The big deterrent for our heaviest political beasts is that it’s a nonentity in terms of power. The job specification is diplomatic, ceremonial and symbolic – the most claustrophobic post in Irish politics.

There’s no privacy. No chance of a skite on the town at the weekend. Ritual handshaking is required at soccer and rugby internationals, all-Ireland finals and national ploughing championships. Gracious wreath-laying at commemorations, along with ambassadorial and judicial induction events is the regular routine. Boredom and repetition could be mind-numbing over seven long years. Enthusiastic connection with the voluntary and community sectors is the main motivation.

Foreign forays are the highlight of a dull calendar. Convening the Council of State on the referral of legislation to the Supreme Court and the dissolution of the Dáil are rare though significant constitutional powers.

It needn’t be thus. Presidents Obama and Sarkozy have full executive powers. We do monarchy lite instead. A modicum of creativity desperately needs to be deployed by our mainline politicians to open up even the partial potential of the presidency. We need to develop a much more purposeful presidency without impinging on the primacy of the Dáil and cabinet. Many functions should be above party politics and partisan selection. The People of the Year awards, held last weekend, could be brought under the auspices of the presidency. This would give official recognition by the state in the form of an annual honours list – our equivalent of a knighthood, OBE or CBE.

The highest civil service appointments (ie, secretary generals) are carried out on the basis of due competition. A shortlist of three names is submitted to cabinet by the sponsoring minister of the line department. A similar procedure could apply for certain office-holders. The Government could submit three names for selection in the appointment of judges, ombudsmen, commissioners and regulators. This would remove suggestions of party cronyism in such key selections.

MEANWHILE, the international diplomatic role could be expanded with a commercial focus. Trade missions might obtain greater prestige if headed up by the president. These functions can be transferred to the presidency without additional cost and must operate within existing budgets.

In the period up to next summer’s Dáil holidays, our political leaders could agree to an all-party approach to modernising the presidency. This would have the benefit of continuity in the event of a change of government.

Additional functions and powers would have the benefit of responding to the public disdain for the Dáil party political bickering. Extra responsibilities could attract the best candidates.

Populist refrain about the presidency relates to the cost and headline salary of €325,000. The total cost to the taxpayer of the Áras is circa €3m. Overall state expenditure exceeds €50bn annually. Saving a hap’worth of tar to sate begrudgers is a cul de sac. Better value from the presidency is obtained not by a cheaper service, but in an enlightened, expanded role. The present presidency is limited to dignified tokenism. Mary Robinson’s candle in the window didn’t alter emigrants’ plight. Months of pointless punditry is a poor substitute for passing up on the opportunity of radical reorganisation. Whether the X Factor can be found in a retiring politician, entrepreneur, celebrity, immigrant or sports star is unimportant. Transferring executive responsibility from Merrion Street to the Phoenix Park is the key challenge.


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