We have just left the period ahead of the actual start of a Presidential campaign, where a succession of possible candidates throw their name forward, some, or even many, of which will fail to get a nomination. It’s silly season in many ways, and part of that is candidates, either wilfully or through ignorance, misrepresenting what they would try to accomplish if they were to be elected President, egged on and encouraged by a media machine that isn’t really all that interested in a proper debate on what the President actually does (or is supposed to do).
In the coming weeks, you’re going to hear a lot from candidates about the kind of President they want to be, and the things they will do, and what they will do differently to past Presidents. You will hear a lot of sensationalised reporting from the media, and a lot of questions to candidates that do not accurately tie-in to the powers and limitations of the Presidency.
Candidates will be judged on themselves personally, their larger political beliefs and political histories, and inevitably on their own lives. This is not even unjust, since this is the sole office elected by the entire people of Ireland, and as such the President is supposed to singularly represent the people of Ireland. But in terms of the office, and what candidates will do in that office, I feel that there are only ten questions we should be asking candidates:
Would you ever refuse a dissolution of the Dail if a sitting Taoiseach, having suffered a “loss of supply”, requested it?
One of the littlest understood or noticed powers of the Presidency, this is actually vitally important to the functioning of our democracy. Right now, if, the actual leader of the country lost a vote in the Dail and moved to get an election called, the President would be within their rights to refuse a dissolution and allow the Dail to select a new Taoiseach. This has never happened in the history of the state, but the memories of Patrick Hilary’s sole incident of note still remain. This is a somewhat unsettling part of constitutional law, and Presidential candidates should be asked to go on the record and state their opinion on its usability.
Would you ever refuse to sign a piece of legislation put to you, if deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court?
If a bill is sent to the President, he or she can send it to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality, and if it is found to be constitutional, then they are obligated to sign. But, it is possible for a conscientious President to refuse to sign, though in doing so they would essentially resign the office. Another way of putting this question would be “Is there any kind of bill or law you would rather quit in the face of then sign?”
Would you be willing to call for an “ordinary referendum” over a piece of legislation in the event of a suitable petition being presented for the same?
Another little-known power of the Presidency. It’s possible this will never come up, seeing as how the Taoiseach exerts such a control over the Seanad’s make-up, but it’s worth asking candidates if they would be willing to call for either a referendum or a general election over a piece of legislation that half of the Seanad and one third of the Dail opposed.
Would you ever have an issue with exercise of the Presidential power of pardon?
This has only been used on a small number of occasions, but is a very important power, though one done “on the advice of the government”. Technically speaking a President could refuse to do so, though they would presumably have to vacate the office afterwards. Think about it: Would a President pardon members of paramilitary organisations? Protesters convicted of disturbing the peace? Someone a sitting government wants pardoned that may not be popular? In other words, would a candidate be willing to turn the power of pardon into a political football?
Would you be willing to criticise a sitting government in public?
This isn’t a power, but it does say something about a President. Most candidates would say “Yes” to this question as a matter of course I know, but it’s good to get them on the record, so that if/when the government is doing something abhorrent to their own beliefs later, they can be legitimately questioned as to their own opinion. The President is under no legal obligation to refrain from criticising the government, it must be remembered, it was just informal protocol for a long time.
Who would you appoint to the Council of State?
The Council of State advises the President in the exercise of his/her discretionary powers, but I’d say you would be hard-pressed to find someone who knows every member of it. For the record, it’s all former and sitting Presidents, Taoisigh and Chief Justices; the sitting Tanaiste, Ceann Comhairle, Cathaoirleach, President of the Court of Appeals, President of the High Court and Attorney General; and eleven nominees selected by the President, at their own discretion. Higgins’ nominees have included civil rights campaigners, London Councillors and history professors, and like every other incarnation of the Council of State, have been little-noticed over the last seven years. But who you will appoint to the positions tells you something about a candidate and how they intend to present themselves during their term, so this is worth asking.
Would you ever put a time limit on the Seanad for consideration of a piece of legislation if requested by the Dail?
Another barely known about power, that is part and parcel of the in-built inferiority of the upper house. An answer to this question would say something on a candidate’s perception of the legislature, Seanad reform and willingness to be a doormat to TD’s.
Would you ever make an address to the Oireachtas or the nation, and if so on what subject?
Something slightly more important here. This power has only been invoked four times regards the Oireachtas – once by De Valera on the 50th anniversary of the First Dail’s sitting, twice by Mary Robinson to discuss Irish identity and then the Diaspora and once by McAleese in 1999 to mark the millennium – and never in the case of the nation. Technically such speeches or messages need the approval of the Dail, and as such the existing examples are not exactly noteworthy or controversial. It could be argued that a President could push the envelope here and dare a government to limit their freedom of expression – I personally think any government with half a brain would be very reluctant to do so – and thus these powers may give a President the opportunity to be quite forthright on a certain topic in a very official setting. Many of the candidates this year will talk a big game about framing conversations about the country’s direction, about being a cipher for debate on the Ireland we have and the Ireland we want. So, are they willing to put their money where their mouth is?
Would you commit to a pay/expenses cap for yourself and Presidential staff?
Nothing to do with Presidential powers – to an extent – but still worth asking. The limitations of the office mean that the Irish Presidency does not have the same financial requirements as other executives in other parts of the world and inevitably questions must be asked about how much a ceremonial figurehead should be paid, and what kind of budget they should be allotted. This opens up into larger questions of how a candidate sees themselves as President, regards the hosting of functions, the meeting of dignitaries, the visits abroad. None of it happens for free. At a time of financial uncertainty – re: Brexit – the commitment to a pay/expenses cap for President’s and their staff – something broken by our current one, if anyone has forgotten – isn’t immaterial. Larger issues on Presidential expenses not being subject to Freedom of Information rules is a connected issue, and candidates should be asked their opinion on that also.
Would you, if elected for the first time, plan to seek a second term?
The least for last. President Higgins has already been criticised in some quarters for rowing back on this, though in the grand scheme of political falsehoods we must consider his reversal on a 2011 pledge to serve one term relatively minor. But it is still a question that bears asking. An Irish President can be in place for nearly decade and a half after all. Most candidates to be asked this question would probably say yes or the not illegitimate answer of “I’ll decide in seven years”. But if you plan to seek just one term, then that is something that should be a matter of record.
I’m going to be carefully examining the manifestos of every candidate and sending this list of questions to them otherwise, to determine their position on the actual powers of the Presidency and will publish them when and if I receive them. Happy Presidential election!