Was it all hot air and hot potatoes? Aine Ryan casts a critical eye on the media circus surrounding the race for the Áras
“A THUNDERING DISGRACE.” Three words that reverberate for those of us old enough to remember 1976 and a political debacle that led to the first, and only, resignation of an Uachtarán na hÉireann.
It would be another 14 years before the presidency was mired in another scandal. The late Brian Lenihan Snr and his ‘mature recollection’ may not have stopped him getting the highest number of first preferences in the 1990 presidential election but it once again mired the role of First Citizen in media muck and ultimately – through the nuances of the Proportional Representation system – led to the election of left wing candidate, Mary Robinson.
How the current campaign, and the seven contenders, will be judged by history is for future commentators. One thing for sure, it will prove an indictment of the serious tabloidisation of the entire Fourth Estate – now an amoebic monster that includes the sometimes self-indulgent tweets of all sorts of twitterers.
Whether David Norris’s postulations about pederasty in ancient Greece ultimately changes the course of Irish history is a matter for speculation. His hounding by a media circus – sometimes more reminiscent of a rabid mob in the ancient Roman colosseum – is on record. As is the hysteria around Dana Rosemary Scallon’s family skeletons. And who cares if she considered emigrating to the United States to sing songs and thump bibles. She wouldn’t be the first.
Obviously, more relevant are the skeletons in Martin McGuinness’s closet, but whether a leading broadcaster – who happens to be blonde and have long legs – had the moral right to ask him: “How do you square, Martin McGuinness, with your God the fact that you were involved in the murder of so many people?” is a matter for serious debate.
On October 18, 1976, the late Fine Gael Minster for Defence Paddy Donegan got himself into serious hot-water and provoked a constitutional crisis when he described the fifth President of Ireland as ‘a thundering disgrace’ when the minister addressed troops at Columb Barracks, Mullingar.
President Ó Dálaigh had referred the Government’s tough new anti-terrorist emergency powers legislation to the Supreme Court. (Word at the time was that Donegan had in fact used much more colourful language than ‘thundering’.)
Despite apologies by Donegan, Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh noted he had done ‘unsalvagable damage to the special relationship between the President (remember Commander-in-Chief) and the Minister for Defence’. Three days later, and less than two years into his term-of-office, O’Dálaigh had resigned. The Supreme Court upheld the new Emergency Powers Bill 1976.
THE candle in the window of Aras an Uachtarán pervades as a powerful symbol of not only Mary Robinson’s seven-year tenure – it also underlines so simply the role of the Irish president. It is essentially symbolic. The Mayo native encapsulated this at her inaugural speech in Dublin Castle in December 1990.
She observed: “The recent revival of an old concept of the Fifth Province expresses this emerging Ireland of tolerance and empathy. The old Irish term for province is coicéad, meaning fifth … The Fifth Province is not anywhere here or there, north or south, east or west. It is a place within each of us – that place that is open to the other, that swinging door which allows us to venture out and others to venture in. Ancient legends divide Ireland into four quarters and a ‘middle’ … While Tara was the political centre of Ireland, tradition has it that this Fifth Province acted as a second centre, a necessary balance. If I am a symbol of anything I would like to be a symbol of this reconciling and healing Fifth Province.”
Her Excellency Mary Robinson concluded: “May it be a presidency where I, the President, can sing to you citizens of Ireland, the joyous refrain of the 14th-century poet as recalled by WB Yeats: “I am of Ireland … come dance with me in Ireland.”
Office of Uachtarán
THE office of Uachtarán na hÉireann (President of Ireland) was established under Articles 12 to 14 of the 1937 constitution. Up until then the First Citizen of Saorstát na hÉireann was called the Governor-General.
The Irish president is elected as Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces for a seven-year term. His or her function is to both guard the people’s rights and that of the constitution.The Council of State and government aids the president on matters defined by the constitution. The president cannot leave the State without the permission of the government and neither can he or she address the Oireachtas without governmental permission. If two-thirds of the Oireachtas support the move, the president can be impeached.
The Council of State consists of a number of government officials, former office holders and up to seven citizens chosen by the president. The current taoiseach, Enda Kenny, as well as five former taoisigh, Liam Cosgrave, Albert Reynolds, John Bruton, Bertie Ahern, and Brian Cowen are all members of the present Council of State, while candidate Mary Davis is one of President McAleese’s nominees.
The president’s most discretionary powers are to refuse a dissolution to a Taoiseach who does not have a Dáil majority; to convene a meeting of the Oireachtas after consulting the Council of State and to refer a Bill to the Supreme Court for a decision on its constitutionality.
The majority of the country’s eight presidents have, at some stage during their tenure, referred a bill to the Supreme Court. The first Uachtarán Douglas Hyde referred the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Bill 1940 to the Supreme Court.
1938 - 1945 Douglas Hyde
1945 - 1959 Seán Thomas O’Kelly
1959 - 1973 Eámon de Valera
1973 - 1974 Erskine Childers
1974 - 1976 Cearbhall O’Dálaigh
1976 - 1990 Patrick Hillery
1990 – 1997 Mary Robinson
1997 - 2011 Mary McAleese