The 2018 campaign to elect Ireland’s president is well and truly underway, with the electorate set to cast their votes later this October. Despite being one of the most recognisable and important figures in Irish political and cultural life, there remains a fair amount of confusion as to what the purpose of the presidency actually is. Let’s see if we can’t answer a few of the questions that keep popping up, and maybe dispel a misconception or two along the way
The president here, he’s like the president in the USA right?
A thousand times, no. Admittedly, like the states, Ireland has a newfound grá for finding presidential candidates by rounding up whoever’s hanging around the studio after filming stops on a reality TV show and sticking them on ballot. That aside, the all-powerful president of the USA has significant power that an Irish president simply doesn’t have. For starters, the power to veto laws he disapproves of or issue presidential orders. Irish presidents don’t write laws, they don’t block laws, they don’t involve themselves in the crafting of legislation in any direct way whatsoever. If you’re imagining west wing-esque showdowns in Leinster house offices between Michael D Higgins and Leo Varadkar about budgets, forget it. Our government is broken into three parts – the judiciary (judges, police etc), the legislature (Dail and Seanad), and executive (Cabinet). You may have noticed none of these are individuals, and none of them are the President. Compare this to the states where the executive branch is effectively one man, and the contrast should be clear. The Irish president sits outside all three categories and is less a political leader than a cultural, diplomatic and figurative one who also has the job of keeping an eye on what comes out of the Dail.
Why , what comes out of the dail?
Laws. Big laws, little laws, popular laws, hated laws, boring laws and headline grabbers. Approved by the Dail and Seanad, championed by Taoiseach and Ministers, and for the most part that’s grand because that’s sort of their job. Again, note, not the president’s part to have anything to do with the production of laws, the debate on them before they’re passed, the popularity of them or – crucially – the president’s own feelings on them. His part of this legislating process is to make sure that the laws he’s handed aren’t directly outside the rules defined by the constitution, which – while we alter it now and again – generally hasn’t changed a whole pile in the years since inception. The president takes the laws from the dail, he checks to see if they’re incompatible (or “repugnant”) to the constitution, and if they’re not repugnant he approves them.
Wait you said he can’t veto, now he can refuse to sign laws?
Yes, but only for a little while. If he has a valid concern that a law is repugnant to the constitution he can’t just cancel it. He can only refer the law to the Supreme Court for them to deliberate on whether it’s inside the rules or not. The Supreme Court which consists of the most senior and experienced judges in the country is unlikely to find a constitutional problem with a law just because it’s unpopular, so a president can’t really just start referring things he’s not mad about. Oh, and if he wastes time by referring something that’s unpopular but constitutionally fine and the Supreme Court can’t find a problem with it, it can’t be challenged again. So for example if the president had refused to sign the eviction bill, the courts would have upheld it anyway, he would have had no choice but to sign, and he would have actually been strengthening it in the long term.
So that means the president has no input on making laws and no real output other than to approve them, albeit slowly? What’s the bloody point of having one so?
Well, presidents don’t tend to be busy here because governments are generally quite sensible in their approach. Ireland remains a fairly calm place politically, with an overwhelmingly moderate electorate. Should the day arise however in which some sort of erratic or totalitarian leader took control of the Dail democratically and started issuing insane laws like banning the press or executing all the left handed people, the President would be the one who would act as the safeguard of the constitution and provide the barrier to dictatorship. So maybe we don’t need a president all the time, in the same way we don’t need fire extinguishers all the time, but let’s not throw the presidency in the skip, eh?
Alright, grand, but if the President’s not really writing laws then why do we always elect politicians to the presidency? What about all those nice businessmen that are running?
This is where the two jobs come into play. For the tea and cameras, ice creams for the whole town, handshakes with world leader side of things the presidency is a grand place to put a charismatic person with an array of new ideas for how to engage with the public and overseas dignitary alike. Plenty of the skills that make good business people transfer extremely well to statesmanship. The problem is that as I’ve explained earlier, as well as hanging out with popular dogs, presidents also have an extremely serious constitutional function, even if we hope they never have to use it. The idea of introducing someone with zero experience of legislation or legal practice immediately into their first role as the one-person defence of the Republic’s basic principles makes about as much sense as formally applying to be CEO of a gigantic corporation instead of finishing your leaving cert. One would think these dragons would be able to recognise a lack of relevant experience. Clearly, given the recent polls, the public do.
So that’s it? Visits and vigilance?
Yeah, that’s the bones of it! They’re both pretty important though.
Really? That’s it? There’s nothing else there? No other powers?
Alright, fine, there are two. A president can in theory delay a general election in an incredibly convoluted scenario where the Taoiseach wants one but doesn’t have the support of the majority of the Dail. It’s never happened. It probably never will.
They can also choose to address the houses of the Oireachtas, however the president still cannot vote on whether a law is passed or not and still has to perform their normal function if it passes.
Ok, I’m with you so far….but if there’s no legislative power then why are candidates promising to do things that aren’t part of the role? Do they not understand what the presidency is for, or are they just being disingenuous?
Ask them. No, I don’t mean don’t ask me. I mean literally ask them. You’re going to bump into more than one of the candidates over the next three weeks, particularly if you live in a city or large town. Ask them how they think the presidency is useful for inventing skype, or the novel idea of “working together“, or what relevance it has to any part of a diatribe of diddly-deedly cliches.
Hang on, I saw that. You didn’t answer the question. If they’re making wacky promises to do things that are way outside the remit of the presidency, are they ignorant or just lying?
I suppose it’s always hard to tell whether someone is full of hot air or just full of shit, so it’s probably best to let the voters decide.
Whoever wins or loses, don’t give your vote away cheaply. The presidency matters. It’s neither a “best boy” pin for some opportunist’s lapel nor the keys to absolute political power. It’s a quality control job that requires diplomacy, judgement, and demonstrable dedication to the country and its people as well as a willingness to live one’s life in public service. It should be fairly obvious who the best person for the job isn’t. As for who it is? The people decide on the 26th.
Spoiler : It’s very very obviously Higgins. Vote for the President.