Fr Kevin Hegarty
Interest in the October Presidential election is high. What a contrast with 1983. Patrick J Hillery wished to leave the office, having served one term. None of the major parties wanted to contest. They persuaded Hillery to stay on in the national interest. A Sunday newspaper headline memorably dubbed him ‘The Prisoner in the Park’.
The change is due in large measure, to the style and substance that the last two Presidents, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, have brought to the office. As constitutional lawyers they were acutely aware of the legal limitations of the presidency as defined in ‘Bunreacht na hEireann’ and as creative politicians they discerned possibilities within these confines.
Founded on her significant legislative input as a senator, inclusiveness was the main theme of the Robinson presidency. In her years in office Ireland became a more tolerant society and the narrative of what it means to be Irish was imaginatively expanded. ‘Building bridges’ was the central thrust of the McAleese reign. The triumphant fulfillment of this approach was most fully expressed in the extraordinary success of Queen Elizabeth’s May visit to the Irish Republic.
Their success should not prevent us from recognising that all our Presidents have served with distinction.
On the enactment of the new constitution in 1938 Douglas Hyde was elected unopposed to the role of President. A founder of the Gaelic League, he had a distinguished career as an academic and scholar. His greatest achievement was the work of cultural retrieval of the literary heritage of Gaelic Ireland. As a young man he tramped the boreens of Connacht to collect poems and songs, often of heartbreaking beauty, that were about to be lost.
Though somewhat other - worldly, he was an excellent head of state. In the somewhat suffocating Catholic atmosphere of the 1930’s it was an important statement that our first head of state was a Protestant. He established the important precedent of referring controversial legislation to the Supreme Court for rulings on its constitutionality .
Symptomatic of the narrow perspectives of these decades the GAA removed him as patron in 1938 because he attended an international soccer match in his official capacity. The then Taoiseach Mr deValera made it clear that no organisation should dictate to the President on carrying out his duties.
Though he suffered a stroke in 1940 Hyde continued in office for a full seven years. However he didn’t seek a second term.
He was succeeded by a leading Fianna Fáil politician, Séan T O’Kelly, after the first electoral contest for the post. Civil war bitterness was still corrosive in the Irish body politic. O’Kelly made several pleas for reconciliation. He delighted especially in representing the country on state visits.
Prone to pomposity, his short stature made him an easy target for cartoonists and satirists. According to historian, Patrick Maume, when Walt Disney visited Ireland in search of leprechaun stories for the film “Darby O’Gill and the Little People”, jokers suggested he should call to ‘Arás an Uachtaráin’.
Eamon deValera took over as President in 1959, the final act of an extraordinary political career. Though an icon of 20th century Irish nationalism he was a controversial figure. Many Fine Gael supporters never forgave him for his role in the civil war. However, his graciousness and dignity as Uachtarán, despite suffering from near blindness, won him admiration and respect. He embodied the spirit of Ireland in the way that De Gaulle did for France or Churchill for England.
He was succeeded in 1973 by another Fianna Fáil politician, Eskine Childers, who like Hyde, was a member of the Church of Ireland. Earnest and polite, he did not suffer fools gladly and was capable of the icy retort. Asked to stand in a photograph with a West of Ireland Fianna Fáil politician whom he despised, he refused saying he would have nothing to do with “that reptile”.
He campaigned on the theme of a presidency for all the people. He wanted to expand the role of the office by inspiring “social patriotism”.
He got little opportunity to do so as he died suddenly in 1974 of a heart attack.
During the presidency of his successor Cearbhall O’Dálaigh occurred the most controversial event in the history of the office. Following the assassination of the British ambassador to Ireland in July, 1976, Liam Cosgrave’s government enacted emergency legislation which O’Dálaigh referred to the Supreme Court. This action irked the government, particularly the Defence Minister Patrick Donegan, who called the President “a thundering disgrace”. As O’Dálaigh felt Cosgrave did not treat the matter sufficiently seriously he resigned to protect the independence of the office. A celebrated jurist and patron of the arts, Paul Durcan honoured him with a fine poem, “Lament for Cearbhall O’Dálaigh”.
To Patrick J Hillery fell the task of stabilising the presidency after this unfortunate incident, which he did, though he often seemed ill at ease or lonely in the Arás. He acted impeccably in 1982 when he refused to entertain the efforts of Charles J. Haughey to refuse a Dáil dissolution to Garret Fitzgerald.
Whoever wins the presidency on October 27 has much on which to build and much on which to aspire.