UCD Law Society questioned the relevance and importance of the presidency in last weeks house debate. The House considered whether or not the Presidency was needed in the modern age, especially considering the calibre of candidates that had presented themselves for this years election.
Donagh O’Callaghan led the proposition into the debate claiming that the role was a ‘mickey mouse job’ and that it didn’t actually matter who held it. Emphasising that it was only a ceremonial role O’Callaghan claimed that it was the powers that we see the President as holding are only theirs in name and that in order to exercise most of them they needed the permission of the Government of the day. He, therefore, raised the questions of why we both to have the role at all?
O’Callaghan then listed off the various functions of the President, including the referral of laws to the Supreme Court and the appointment of judges all to show how little they can actually do without the Government of the day agreeing. He summarised that the role was simply a lot of taking and signing papers, and that one a job we didn’t really need anymore. He even noted the patently ridiculous situation that the President of the day finds themselves in, whereby they cannot leave the country without the permission of the Government of the day. He called for its removal to simplify the whole legislative and appointments process for everyone.
Edward Leonard responded for the opposition reminding the audience that the most notable function of the President was not one that was laid down in law, but one that has emerged over many years. This was their role as Ireland’s ultimate ambassador abroad, and someone who embodies what we are the people of Ireland wants the world to see when they think of Ireland. Leonard led us on a brief history of the Presidency, telling the audience that the role emerged from that of the Governer-General who was at one time the King of Englands chief representative to Ireland. That role was also mostly ceremonial with limited actual powers.
In the new republic that was established after independance, the two majors parties in effect decided to retain a similar role as a unifying voice above politics, choosing Douglas Hyde as their President. He went on to speak about how even though the powers of the President were rarely used, they did remain vital to provide a safety net.
Dara Keenan was up next for the proposition and noted that the Irish Presidency had always been a little bit different. The role had always been remarkably public facing for something that ultimately held so little power. Keenan also noted that it was still an important role symbolically, and that ‘I don’t trust Fianna Fail and Fine Gael to pick that person’. The heart of Keenan’s argument was that we had as a state got quite lucky in the quality of our Presidents thus far and that if the current batch of candidates that went forward were anything to go by we might not get that lucky in the future.
Noting that the office was in effect treated as ‘a retirement home for Fianna Fail politicians’ for the first 30 years of its existence, Keenan said this only really changed when Mary Robinson tried to reinvigorate the role in the 90s. This has brought a new brand of candidate to the fore, typically ones who don’t understand the role anymore. Therefore he argued that the time was right to abolish the role.
Tara Hanlon stepped up to defend the Presidency next, saying that the role had typically been occupied by a unifying figure and that unlike other positions, it could be occupied by nearly anyone. The fact that the officeholders did not attract the same attention as other Presidents was not a major issue, because the role was smaller. Hanlon also spoke about how prior Presidents had successfully used to the role to raise important issues, such as the environment, marriage equality and women’s rights. Many of these issues she argued where brought to the centre of Irish politics due to a Presidents intervention. She concluded by saying that the President of the day represented the best of Ireland, and we shouldn’t seek to deprive ourselves of that asset.
Joseph Aherne was the final proposition speaker, and taking a different approach to his colleagues, he actually called for a reform of the role as opposed to the outright abolition of the role. Aherne argued that the poor quality of candidates that we’ve seen is a direct result of the poor quality job they are expected to undertake. He argued that if the job itself was to be made better, then the quality of those seeking it would rise. The current office he said was ‘outdated and underused’, and that we should seek to improve it.
The final speaker for the opposition and the debate as a whole was Rowan Kelleher, who attacked the proposition for viewing the current role of the presidency as useless. He said that part of this debate had devolved into a discussion on constitutional law, with questions over what the President could and couldn’t do. Kelleher aimed to avoid that and argued that thus far we had a role that was and has been held by broadly respected individuals, who have furthered various causes important to the Irish people. Kelleher said the Irish people had got it right this far, and that we should continue to trust them to vote in the best people to represent us as a people.
By Aaron Bowman – CoEditor