The resounding triumph for President Higgins in the presidential election and the calibre of his challengers raises serious questions about the nomination process for the presidency. President Higgins had overwhelming cross-party support: opinion polls showed an unassailable lead on his would-be challengers. Furthermore, there is the simple fact that the Presidency is not an executive office and doesn’t require the same direct, regular input of citizens. That is not to say the President shouldn’t be popularly elected, quite the opposite: I believe it gives the President a legitimacy they wouldn’t have if appointed and offers the public a connection to the office holder – the president is “theirs” in a way. But unless the president has executed the role in an exceptionally poor fashion, it is difficult to see why people’s opinions would change from election to election.
“I do not believe they were so out of touch that they misjudged the public mood so erroneously. The answer can only be desperation for publicity – councillors got to hold court and question prospective candidates in front of TV cameras.”
Michael D Higgins is the same man that was elected seven years ago. He has not had to make unpopular decisions regarding funding of services, he has not overseen a government department that has failed to tackle the housing crisis, he is not responsible for a health system that fails its patients on a daily basis. Unless there was some sort of palace scandal it is hard to see why the public would want a change. It speaks volumes that the only real criticism that anyone can come up with is the fact that he stayed in an expensive hotel in Switzerland, although I doubt he had any input into the matter; I can’t exactly picture him sitting in the Áras with Sabina scrolling through booking.com deciding whether they want to fork out the bit extra for the hotel with the rooftop pool. While finances at the Áras should be more transparent, I do not believe a single instance of poor judgment warrants his ousting, and the results of the election indicate the public feels the same way.
Notwithstanding the obvious need to not challenge the incumbent, the calibre of candidates nominated also serious raises questions about the role of county councillors in the nominations process. Peter Casey doesn’t appear to have ever read the constitution, while his rhetoric on the Travelling community and social welfare should not be repeated. From the debates he comes across as puerile, antagonistic, and vindictive. Gavin Duffy concedes the President has extraordinarily limited powers but almost in the same breathe announced he would established an “International Youth Corps”, notwithstanding he would have no power to fund it, or regulate it. Joan Freeman received a “loan” from a man who runs a “health company”, which paid a substantial legal settlement following pyramid scheme allegations. And possibly even most frightening of all: Sean Gallagher’s campaign video, which almost matches Teresa’s May entrance to this year’s Tory conference for its cringeworthiness .
Our fine local councillors, in their eminent wisdom, decided to put these people on the ballot paper and cost the taxpayer millions, with some estimating a cost of €15 million. Sinn Fein possibly would not have put forward a candidate had no other candidate been nominated – the resounding defeat and sole blame for cost could hardly be offset by some positive airtime, by any calculation. For the cost of an election no one wanted, we could have built 45 three-bedroom council houses in Dublin.
The fact that 16 local authorities voted to nominate a candidate for election when the public mood was so heavily in favour of the incumbent begs the question: why did they do it? There are four possible answers: 1) they felt democracy required it 2) they believed the public wanted an election 3) they just wanted to exercise one of their few powers and feel important 4) they wanted the airtime.
However, democracy does not always demand elections to a largely ceremonial office. If it’s the case that councillors believed the public wanted an election, how were they so out of touch? Can they really claim to be representative of their constituents now? No one could or should believe they were so out of touch that they misjudged the public mood so erroneously. The answer can only be desperation for publicity – councillors got to hold court and question prospective candidates in front of TV cameras. Previously unheard of councillors who banged on the door of RTE for years suddenly found themselves being interviewed on the likes of Today with Sean O’Rourke. On one level, it’s hard to blame them – they just want to be loved. But it’s also rather pathetic that at a time when we have a dearth of housing across the state and a health system that is crumbling, that we would waste money fanning councillors’ egos.
Local councils do nothing useful. Look at the endemic corruption through the decades — RTÉ uncovered three different individuals, from Donegal, Monaghan, and Sligo who were willing to act corruptly in 2015 – and these are just the ones who were caught out. Look at the farce that is our planning system. Councils had to be stripped of much of their powers because they misused them so much. They huff and puff, but are so ineffective they couldn’t even blow a house down – never mind actually build social housing. Why then, do they still retain the right to nominate candidates for the Presidency?
“If a real constitutional crisis comes along, we want someone with a cool head and experience to temper the government, and achieve what’s best in the country’s interest. Not an egomaniac from TV who fancies himself a statesman.”
A far better mode of nomination, other than by members of the Oireachtas, would be for a prospective candidate to get signatures of 10% of the electorate. This would ensure only candidates who have a minimum level of public support could get on the ballot paper. It would also ensure that the likes of Peter Casey, Gavin Duffy, and Joan Freeman weren’t even on the ballot paper. This would also have had the effect of meaning that the more genuine candidates had an actual chance to earnestly challenge the incumbent – in all the debates we suffered through the tangential issues, a lot of which were insults hurled by Peter Casey at other candidates.
The Presidency is an often somewhat chided role, and frankly it is primarily a ceremonial office. But State ceremonial is an important element of statehood. It is a unifier, a non-partisan role that can represent us at home and abroad. This can be seen throughout its history. The inaugural holder Douglas Hyde was nominated as a consensus candidate in an overture to the Protestant minority and in recognition of his consummate dedication to Irish culture. Mary Robinson placed the diaspora at the centre of her presidency, while Mary McAleese fostered a close relationship with the North and Britain that has contributed significantly to the normalisation of relations. It requires a person of a certain gravitas and personality, and we have been lucky with our choices so far. Its functional role constitutionally also requires someone with a familiarity of Irish politics – our dislike of the idea of the office being reserved for them notwithstanding. If a real constitutional crisis comes along, we want someone with a cool head and experience to temper the government, and achieve what is best in the country’s interest. Not an egomaniac from TV who fancies himself a statesman.