Professor David Farrell, head of School of Politics and International Relations, UCD.
The President, as head of state, is supposed to be above party politics. It would be nice to think that this principle could be extended to how presidential candidates are nominated. In the bulk of cases, the candidates are nominated by the political parties and in virtually all cases (the partial exception being Mary Robinson), the successful candidate has been a party nominee (usually Fianna Fáil).
The recent debacle over presidential nominations reveals some of the shortcomings of the current system. At one point, there was the very real potential that David Norris could have failed in his bid to be nominated, despite consistently being one of the most popular candidates in opinion poll after opinion poll. There was a mad last-minute scurrying to chase votes from every possible quarter.
Accusations flew of heavy-handed practices to try and win doubters around. Rumours were rampant of possible last minute moves by embarrassed party leaders to help him over the bar. In the end, it needed a dramatic gesture by Michael D Higgins to get him his final Council nomination – a move that earned candidate Higgins much kudos. All of this was pretty unseemly.
The bar that non-party candidates have to reach – 20 Oireachtas members or four Councils – is high, and could be about to get much higher. If the government proceeds with its proposals to abolish the Seanad and reduce the size of the Dáil, it will reduce significantly the number of Oireachtas members that presidential aspirants can approach, down from the current number of 226 TDs and Senators to possibly as few as 150 TDs – demonstrating once again the unintended consequences of institutional reform.
Given such a scenario, this issue can no longer be ignored. At the very least, it would require a relaxing of the current requirement. As my colleague, Professor Michael Gallagher (TCD) suggests (on www.politicalreform.ie), the current rules could be redrafted to make the bar something like 5 percent of Oireachtas members or 5 percent of council members.
But surely if we are going to have to go down the road of change anyway, then why opt for something so piecemeal? Why not consider more radical alternatives?
This is not the first time that questions have been raised over our presidential nomination process; indeed, the matter was reviewed at length by the Constitution Review Group in 1996, though it felt unable to make firm recommendations, other than that the issue should not be forgotten. The simple fact of the matter is that there is no easy solution to this.
The problem that the Constitution Review Group had to contend with is that many of the likely alternative nomination procedures come at a cost. For instance, requiring candidates to pay a monetary deposit (say, €5,000) could quite fairly be seen as discriminating in favour of the well heeled. The other option of requiring candidates to gather a minimum number of signatures (say, 10,000) may be more equitable and more consistent with the practice of other jurisdictions; however, it too comes at a cost – in this case to the tax-payer, who would have to pony up for the costs of validating the signature process so as to prevent fraud.
But should that be accepted as a reason not to make such a change? Democracy does not come cheaply. Sometimes it simply has to be accepted that if a process is to be organized well it may require some resourcing. The Presidency should be above party politics, and that also means in where and how candidates emerge for this high office. We need to move away from the current system where, in essence, it is the party leaderships – by whipping their Oireachtas members and councilors into line – who determine the fate of potential presidential nominees. For a truly independent presidency we need a system that facilitates the emergence of truly independent candidates.
Brendan Lannoye, UCD final year political science student.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – that’s a popular saying, right? Yep, and it’s popular for a reason: it’s correct. There is absolutely no need to change the presidential candidate nomination system because, quite frankly, this election proves that it works just fine.
The 2011 race for the Áras has provided a record seven candidates. The nomination procedure states that either 20 members of the Oireachtas, drawn either from the Dáil or the Seanad, or four County Councils may nominate a candidate.
This year there were a possible 225 signatures available from the Oireachtas for nomination. While the Party Whip System largely dictates the availability of this route to the candidates, the 2011 race has still proven that all major political parties had no problem nominating a candidate.
It is of note that while Fianna Fail didn’t nominate a candidate, they could have. In their case they just couldn’t find the ‘right candidate’ amongst themselves, i.e. Michael Martin couldn’t convince Usain Bolt to run with a fist full of medals.
But that’s hardly fair, what about the independents? Well, the fact that there are more independent-backed candidates than party-backed candidates further alludes to the effectiveness of the nomination system. While Mr. Norris and others bemoaned the system that forced the candidates into a late dash, realistically who lost out? No one! In fact, nearly every candidate that seriously sought after a nomination has received it.
However, it must be conceded that in the past there have been some less than optimal nomination scenarios. Six of the thirteen presidential elections have been uncontested, an unfortunate occurrence indeed.
On the other hand, this election proves that if those seeking nomination are sufficiently motivated, it is possible. It seems more likely that the low level of candidates nominated throughout our electoral history is more to do with an unwillingness of people to take on the largely puppet-like and unspectacular role that is being the president.
Much has been made of the criteria to be nominated too. According to Bunreacht na hÉireann, one must be over 35 and hold Irish citizenship to be. While this rules out people like Brian O’Driscoll and Barack Obama, I get the impression that these people could be doing something slightly more worthwhile with their time.
I say this because the role of the President is largely ceremonial, i.e. it’s not very important. Even Professor David Farrell, a leading political scientist, did not include Electoral System Reform in his 25 issue points while calculating the Political Reform Scorecard for the General Election this year, let alone Presidential Electoral Nomination Reform.
When it comes down to it, the current Government have enough things to be reforming without worrying about improving on our current, pretty decent, presidential candidate nomination procedure. Changing the procedure means a costly referendum and bumping down things like Local Government and Committee System reform, which are actually important.
We could get all philosophical too and say we should always strive for the best. But just because I want a pony, and a pony would be awesome, doesn’t mean I’ll get a pony. That’s just ridiculous.
We’ve got to be sensible here. Why should we all take an hour off work to have another referendum on the nomination procedure for a pretty unimportant office? Because the candidates, who got the nomination in the end, told us it was difficult? Because it’s broken (even though there were a record number of nominations this year)? Because we look archaic on the global stage? I somehow doubt that the Troika leaders have deep set feelings on the topic.
The reform card is whipped out with other phrases such as ‘broken system’ and ‘catastrophic consequences’ purely to garner public support. It gets people excited, it’s the proverbial get-in-the-media-for-free-card, but it is cast aside once it has served its purpose. Changing our Constitution is a very serious thing; it should only be done in response to very serious faults, none of which exist here.