The Irish Presidential System

Jason T. Williams

Originally published in 1998/1999, Issue 1

Role and Conception

The role of President was laid out in the Irish Constitution (Bunreacht na hÉireann) of 1937 with the first elections to the position being held in 1938.  The role is defined in articles 12-14 of Bunreacht na hÉireann as being the ceremonial Head of the Irish State.  The Constitution defines the President as someone “who shall take precedence over all other persons in the State and who shall exercise and perform the powers and functions conferred on the President by this Constitution and by law.” Elections for the Presidency can take place every seven years using the single transferable vote system; although an election will only take place if there has been more than one nomination for the post.  To date there have only ever been six contested presidential elections with a single candidate being nominated on the other five occasions.  The President’s stay in office is limited by Bunreacht na hÉireann to two seven years terms with the possibility of impeachment by the Irish Parliament for what the constitution calls stated misbehaviour.  Unlike many other European Heads of State, the President does not have a right to see state papers but is kept informed of Government Business by regular visits from the Taoiseach or Prime Minister.

Although on a superficial level the office of President might seem to resemble that of an elected Constitutional Monarch the position does have real powers, as De Valera stated the President “is there to guard the people’s rights and mainly to guard the Constitution”. If a majority in the Irish Oireachtas or Parliament feels that a Bill might be unconstitutional s/he has the power to refer the bill to the Supreme Court to test its Constitutionality.  The President also has the power to call a referendum if it is felt that the will of the people should be heard on a certain issue before legislation is passed.  In referring to these function De Valera described how “in exercising these powers [the President] is acting on behalf of the people who have put him there for that special purpose.

In exercising these powers of constitutional Guardianship the Constitution requires the President to consult a body called the Council of State.  This is made up of the Taoiseach, the Tdnaiste (deputy Taoiseach), the Chief Justice, the President of the High Court, the Chairman of Ddil tireann (the House of Representatives), the Chairman of Scanad tireann (the Senate), and the Attorney General plus any appointees the President sees fit.  Apart from the role of Constitutional Guardian, the President is supposed to remain aloof from the cut and thrust of Irish Political Debate and to be a symbol of the Nation at home and abroad.  The President’s political powers are severely limited.  During the 1990 Presidential Elections an Oireachtas’ (Member of Parliament) private members bill seeking to increase the powers of the Presidency was massively defeated.  The role had been seen as a retirement job for leading political figures coming to the end of their Careers; however this was to drastically change with the election in 1990 of Mary Robinson as President.

The Hand that Rocked the Presidency

Mary Robinson’s election campaign for the Presidency in 1990 was a watershed for the position and indeed for Ireland as a modern State.  Robinson, the Labour party sponsored Candidate, was running against the ageing senior Fianna Fail statesmen Brian Lenihan for the position.  Before Robinson’s election, the Presidency had previously been seen as a retirement job for senior Male figures within Fianna Fail whose time had come, and this was seemingly the case with Lenihan’s candidature.  Robinson’s view of the office was remarkably different to that of the traditional presidential role.  As one of her campaign workers said in the 1990 election, “an office should be for work, not retirement”.

Mary Robinson nee Bourke was born in Ballina Co Mayo on 21” May 1944.  She married Nicolas Robinson in 1970.  They have three children Tessa, William and Aubrey.  Robinson graduated with a first class LLB Degree from Trinity College Dublin in 1967, and went on to gain a first class LLM in the following year.  At the age of 25 She was appointed to the Reid Chair of Constitutional law at Trinity College.  A member of both the English and Irish bars, she served as a Senator in the Irish Parliament from 1969 until 1989 and founded the Irish Centre of European Law in 1983.

Robinson’s victory saw the 46-yearold inaugurated as the first Woman and the youngest person to hold the office of President of Ireland, replacing her 63-year-old predecessor Dr. Patrick Hillery.  Setting the scene for her Presidency in her inaugural speech, Robinson spoke of ‘a New Ireland, open, tolerant, inclusive’.  It was in Northern Ireland where President Robinson said in her Inauguration speech that she wanted to encourage a mutual understanding and tolerance.  As a female Head of a conservative Catholic State, Robinson, with her Protestant Husband, had the potential of reaching out to Northern Protestant Unionists.  She heralded her election as a sign that the country had “passed the threshold to a new pluralist Ireland.”

As the Irish Constitution claims jurisdiction over the whole Island of Ireland; Robinson was in accordance with the Constitution, Head of State in Ireland, North and South.  This position is in conflict with the Queen’s position as Head of State of Northern Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom, and this conception has sought to promote conflict between a visiting Irish President in Northern Ireland and the Loyalist communities there.

During her visit to the province in March 1994, David Trimble – later to become leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and Northern Ireland’s first Minister – criticised Robinson for ‘deliberately insulting the Queen and her loyal subjects in Ulster with an itinerary made suitable for a public visit’.  On an earlier visit to the province Robinson had provoked outrage amongst Unionists by shaking hands with the Sinn Feinn President Gerry Adams during a visit to his Belfast West Constituency.  Robinson actively used her Presidency to promote a new relationship between Ireland and the United Kingdom with arguably the most dramatic moment of this coming when she became the first ever Irish Head of State to meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace in 1993.  Robinson claimed that “ a psychological barrier had been broken down” by the visit.

Another first came with her involvement in International Human Rights.  In 1992 Robinson visited Somalia and witnessed the human rights abuses as a result of the civil war there.  Robinson’s experiences in Somalia lead her to write to other Heads of State asking them to impress upon on their Heads of Government the urgent need for a solution to the Somalia crisis.  She also wrote a book about her visit.  She was also the first Head of State to visit Rwanda after the genocide there.  In 1997 Mary Robinson announced her intention not to seek a second term but to seek her Government’s nomination for the position of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.  After being appointed to that post on 9 June 1997 by Secretary General Kofi Annan.  Robinson resigned from the Presidency.

As the Robinson era came to an end, preparations for the next Presidential elections came to signify how much Irish Political culture has been transformed by her time in office.  As the front runner and eventual victor, Mary McAleese was adopted as the Fianna Fail candidate.

The First Ulster President

On October 30” 1997, Professor Mary McAleese, the 46 year old Vice Chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast won the Irish Presidential Election with 59% of the vote making her Ireland’s eighth President.  McAleese was born Mary Leneghan in Belfast on 27th June 195 1. Her Father is a Publican from Belfast and her Mother is from Co Derry.  She married Martin McAleese, her first boyfriend. 1976.  They first met when they represented their respective Schools in a debating contest.  Martin is a trained accountant who retrained as a Dentist and now practises in Co Amargh.  They have three Children: Emma, SarahMai and Justin.

She studied Law at Queens where she was a brilliant scholar graduating with a first in Law.  She then qualified as a Barrister at both the Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland Bar.  A year later she was appointed to the Reid Chair in Criminal Law at Trinity College Dublin, at the age of 24 succeeding Mary Robinson.

At Queens she lead a Jistinguished career becoming director of the Institute of Professional Legal Studies in 1987, and then one of the Vice Chancellors of the University in 1994.

Mary McAleese is the first President of Ireland to come from Northern Ireland, and consequently is the first President not to be enfranchised in an election in which she was the winner.  As a native of Northern Ireland, President McAleese has a unique position within the Irish Government having had first hand experience of the troubles.  Her family were forced to leave Belfast in the early 1970s after her home became the target of Loyalist Terrorists.  She invited the two Ulster Unionist Leaders David Trimble and Rev. Ian Paisley to her inauguration ceremony.

She has also hinted that she may invite the Queen to pay a state visit to Dublin as the first British Head of State to ever make an official visit to the Republic.  McAleese who has dined with the Queen at Buckingham Palace twice said that she would invite the Queen as she “owed her Lunch.” In November 1998 McAleese said that a royal visit would be “a confirmation of the fact that the sets of relationships we now enjoy between these two islands are the most mature they have been at any time for perhaps 900 years”.  Mary McAleese was selected as the Fianna Fail candidate at a selection contest in September 1997.  In a testament to how Irish Politics has been transformed by the Mary Robinson Presidency McAleese beat the former Prime Minister Albert Reynolds to secure the Party’s nomination.

The fear that there may be a return to the preRobinson bad old days was quoted as the principle reason the Party rejected Reynolds and went for McAleese.  The slogan of McAleese’s campaign was “building bridges”.  Speaking at the launch of her campaign on 28” September McAleese spoke of the “many fissures in our society that remained to be bridged”.  She referred to the Presidency as a “bridge between this millennium and the next.  The eighth Presidency will be a bridge to the future which is in front of us”.  Taoiseach Bertie Ahern echoed these sentiments by claiming that McAleese would “lead the Irish people across the Millennium Bridge in the 21st Century”.

As a native of Northern Ireland MeAleese also referred to the process of building bridges within the province.  In a speech to All Hallows College a week before the election she attempted to assuage loyalist’s fears by stating that “Unionism is a legitimate Political allegiance, I will never be a part of any futile or self-deluding attempt to politically sublimate the Unionist community.”  During the campaign she was hit by the leak of sensitive Government papers which claimed that she was a Sinn Fein sympathiser who was delighted with their showing in the recent British General Election; other leaked documents were returned by the Sunday paper that received them as they feared it would do harm to Dublin-London relations if published.  The leaks caused outrage in the province with the Alliance leader Lord Alderdice calling for McAleese to renounce her candidacy.  A consequent Government inquiry reported that the

leaks came from a former adviser to the previous Rainbow Coalition Government headed by John Bruton.  Despite the controversy McAleese’s support wasn’t seriously damaged in fact her support in opinion polls grew even when Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams publicly backed her.

The elections took place on 30th October 1997 with an election turnout of under 50% making it the lowest Presidential poll turnout ever: On the second count McAleese won 59% of the vote against her nearest rival Mary B anotti MEP of Fine Gael with 41 % with the singer Dana Scallion in third place.  On the 11th of November 1997 in Dublin Castle she was inaugurated as the eighth President of Ireland.  McAleese’s victory was acclaimed by Tom McGurk of the Sunday Business Post as a “triumph for Northern Nationalists, but also a triumph for the new, confident self-aware generation in the South.” After Mary Robinson’s Presidency, the office gained a new vitality and significance both at home and abroad.  It now falls on Mary McAleese to take both the office of President, and Ireland into the new Millennium.

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