Mr President: You say it best, when you say nothing at all...

Is President Michael D Higgins going beyond the boundaries of his office? So asks John Dolan in his weekly column
Mr President: You say it best, when you say nothing at all...

President Michael D. Higgins and his wife Sabina at the opening of the Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann in Mullingar this week.

IT might seem a tad hysterical to us here in 2022, but when the office of President of Ireland was established 85 years ago, there were real concerns it would pave the way to a dictatorship.

But, viewed through the prism of European politics in 1937, you can begin to understand those concerns a little more.

Dictatorships were common, the norm in fact, on the continent at the time - from Hitler in Germany to Mussolini in Italy, from Franco on the brink of power in Spain to Salazar in Portugal, and a slew of eastern European nations.

So, when Éamon de Valera proposed the new office of President in 1937, the backlash was understandable. Indeed, many of Dev’s opponents cast their minds back just 15 years to a time when he had threatened the very stability of that State. Poacher turned gamekeeper indeed...

The critics were particularly worried about his plan for the new President to be head of the armed forces - surely this privilege should remain in parliament’s hands: images of Hitler receiving salutes from goose-stepping soldiers sprang to mind.

But Dev fiercely defended his plans to put Ireland on a new democratic footing, and labelled accusations of opening the way to a dictatorship as “absurd”.

Dev - President of the Executive Council in 1937 - insisted: “The nominal vesting of the control and command of the army in the President is right, because he (sic) is supposed to be non-political in the sense of not being attached to a political party.”

Doubling down on this non-political aspect of the Presidency, he added: “The President has no will of his own, and has to act on advice (from the government of the day).”

‘Non-political’ and ‘no will of his (or her) own’ - two of the central tenets of the presidency ever since Douglas Hyde became the first to assume the role in 1938.

It’s worth pointing out these values - and I do think they are values - are not enshrined in any law or statue; they have become a convention, an article of faith if you like.

We elect our TDs to run the country, we vote for a neutralised, unopinionated President who does all the constitutional stuff and doesn’t enter politics, court controversy, or say anything to frighten the horses. That’s the way we like it... but is that value now under threat?

Fears of a dictatorship of course proved groundless, but a problem that arose in subsequent years was finding a suitable candidate who would appear and remain neutral.

Many candidates and holders of the office have had a political background. Nobody could been been President without the tacit backing of Fianna Fáil in the first 50 years, while Mary Robinson had links to Labour when she entered the Áras, as does the current incumbent, Michael D. Higgins.

Nobody expects the holders of the office of head of State to drop all their principles and beliefs on entering the Áras, but we have come to expect - indeed, I would say demand - that they retain a neutral footing when it comes to the political affairs of the day. To be statesman- (or woman-) like.

This is the issue I have had with Michael D. Higgins for some time - and, as he enters the final three years of his presidency, I can foresee his interference and crossing of boundaries becoming even more of a problem for our body politic.

His defenders may insist he has not broken any laws of his office, but I would contend he is flouting the spirit of the office, and that is just as damaging.

******

The main thing we need to establish is not whether Michael D. Higgins’ utterances are right or wrong - that is irrelevant. But whether they are crossing the line into politics and he risks disturbing the delicate balance of our political establishment.

Few of us would dispute the housing crisis is a “disaster”, as he stated in June. But using such an emotive term put the government on the back foot and was warmly applauded by the opposition. He further added: “Building homes is what’s important... not to be a star performer for the speculative sector internationally.”

That statement, surely, is encroaching into the political fray, whether you happen to agree with it or not. It takes a specific stance on the reasons for the crisis and makes an accusation the Government who are meant to advise him is in no position to answer.

Or how about a month earlier when President Higgins decided to take on one of the world’s most powerful businessmen, billionaire Elon Musk, accusing him of “incredible and dangerous narcissism” for wanting to buy Twitter - a company that employs 500 people in Ireland incidentally.

You may well agree with that - but again, that is not the issue - the question is, does it go beyond the boundaries of his office?

I had cause to criticise the President on this page last year, after I felt he delivered a snub to Northern Ireland by refusing to attend an interdenominational event to mark the centenary of partition. A sin of omission rather than commission perhaps - a bit like his prolonged silence in the row over his wife’s letter about the war in Ukraine.

Increasingly, the President is a man who apparently cannot keep quiet - except on occasions when he oversteps the mark and is urged to clarify his stance.

Each time there is controversy over his remarks or actions, you have to wonder how much, or how little, discourse there was beforehand between the government of which he is meant to be the mouthpiece, and the man himself.

We often read in the media that the Taoiseach and his ministers are afraid to take on President Higgins because he enjoys so much popularity - but that will surely only give him more licence to interfere and meddle in politics.

Certainly, the controversies surrounding him appear to be more prevalent as he enters the final laps of his 14-year tenure.

The latest came courtesy of that letter sent by his wife, Sabina Coyne, to the Irish Times, which angered Ukrainians and won praise from Russians - hardly a good look at a time when our government and the vast majority of people are four square behind the oppressed Ukrainians.

The letter was published on the President’s official website but later removed, leaving one to reasonably speculate whether the President was aware of the letter and in agreement with its thrust.

None of this seems to be harming the popularity of the man himself - but surely the more pertinent question is: is it harming the office?

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