Do we really need an Irish President?

Should a new type of Presidency be created, which would see the role of President and Taoiseach merged? So asks TP O’Mahony, who reflects on the history and function of the job
Do we really need an Irish President?
President Michael D Higgins speaking to a packed meeting of supporters. Photograph: Hany Marzouk

IN the midst of all the posturing and speechifying (some of it quite bizarre) by a variety of presidential wannabes, one question has yet to surface — Does Ireland really need a President in 2018?

It was the former Fianna Fail TD and Minister, Mary O’Rourke, who described the office as a “meet-and-greet” job, and that, in essence, is what it is. The role of the President is, with some minor exceptions, a ceremonial one.

It is also an expensive office — costing something in the region of €8 million a year. Yes, a nation needs a Head of State, but that role could be fulfilled by a reformed Presidency, one in which the roles of President and Taoiseach would be merged.

This is not new idea. In 1996 the Constitution Review Group noted that in 1967 the Committee on the Constitution (an earlier top-level review group) was divided on whether the office of President should exist.

“Those who would abolish it argued that the powers of the President were those of a figure-head, that the President’s formal duties as Head of State could be performed by the Taoiseach, and that abolition would create savings.”

The President is essentially a figure-head. He or she exercises no executive functions. You can’t in a parliamentary democracy have two rival centres of power — one in Kildare Street and one in the Phoenix Park. The architects of the 1937 Constitution — the document which created the office of President — were very aware of that.

The American constitutional model provides a template. If the President of the United States (try to forget for the moment who the present holder of that office is) can combine three roles — Head of State, Chief Executive (Prime Minister), and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces — then why shouldn’t we require the Taoiseach (whoever that happens to be) to do likewise. For one thing, it would save a lot of money.

And in our jurisdiction, none of us can pretend that the roles are anywhere near as onerous as they are in the USA.

Yes — a choice would have to be made between “President” and “Taoiseach”; that’s easy — henceforth Dail Eireann would be electing a President. The word “Taoiseach” would have to be consigned to the dustbin of history. Foreign leaders can never pronounce it anyway.

In the past there was no public demand for abolition of the office. That might not be true in 2018. If the question of abolition of the office as presently constituted (to be replaced by a new Presidency which would see the role of President and Taoiseach merged) who would bet on the outcome?

In the 1937 Constitution, Bunreacht na hEireann, the Presidency is covered by three articles (12-14), but they are long ones with numerous sections and sub-sections. During the Dail debates on the draft of the Constitution, Éamon de Valera used the phrase “Guardian of the Constitution” — a role he attributed to the President. It’s not in the text of the Constitution, but, according to David Gwynn Morgan, emeritus professor of constitutional law at UCC, this “convenient if rather grandiose title” refers to the limited powers which the President exercises independently of the Government.

The two of these that matter — (a) the power to refuse to dissolve Dail Eaireann on the advice of a Taoiseach who has ceased to retain the support of a majority in the Dail (Article 13.2.2); and (B) the power to refer Bills to the Supreme Court to test their constitutionality (Article 26.1.1) — could be transferred to a slimmed-down Council of State.

With regard to the latter, the (new) President would forfeit the right under Article 31.3 to appoint seven members to it. The slimmed down Council of State would consist of the Tanaiste, the Chief Justice, the President of the High Court, the Chairman of Dail Eireann, the Chairman of Seanad Eireann, and the Attorney General, as well former Taoisigh, and former Chief Justices.

The principal architect of the 1937 Constitution, Éamon de Valera, was determined to get rid of the 1922 Free State Constitution, and, in particular, to get rid of any reference to the British Monarch.

In 1936 the abdication crisis in Britain provided Dev with an opportunity to make a move. With a constitutional crisis looming in London after King Edward VIII, in his determination to marry the American divorcee, Mrs Wallis Simpson, decided to give up his crown, Dev was able to take advantage of this.

Article 12 of the 1922 Constitution said that a legislature to be known as the Oireachtas “shall consist of the King and two Houses”. And of course the 1922 document contained (Article 17) the Oath of Allegiance to the Monarch.

The King was represented in Ireland by a Governor-Genera, and the crisis meant that Dev did not have to wait for the new Constitution to be finalised before taking action.

As Basil Chubb explained in his book The Politics of the Irish Constitution, Dev, “taking an unexpected opportunity with the crisis”, was able to introduce two Bills to amend the 1922 document, removing references to the Crown and the Governor General. The latter was replaced by the President in the new 1937 Constitution.

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