Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Symbolic Power of Ireland's President Robinson

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Symbolic Power of Ireland's President Robinson

Article excerpt

The election of the seventh president of Ireland, held on October 7, 1990, witnessed the triumph of Mary Robinson as the first woman president and the first successful non-Fianna Fail(1) candidate since 1945. The Irish Constitution states that the office of the president should be filled by a direct vote of the people for a period of seven years. In practice, however, four presidents have been appointed by consent, thereby avoiding the need for an election. Therefore, it was only the fifth president actually elected, the first presidential election in seventeen years, and the first since 1945 to be contested by three candidates.

The office of the Irish presidency as outlined in Articles 12 through 14 of the Irish Constitution is primarily ceremonial in character. Most of the president's responsibilities are purely formal, and other functions can be performed by her only on the "advice" (meaning permission) of the government. Six areas in which the president enjoys some power may be identified.(2) In three of these, the president has up to now been inactive, primarily because the initiative lies with some other institution that has chosen not to exercise it. First, the Senate (equivalent to the English House of Lords) may request the president to refer the question of whether a bill is or is not a money bill to a Committee of Privileges; the president may then, after consultation with her Council of State (her committee of advisers), appoint such a committee (Article 22.2). Second, in certain exceptional circumstances, the government may seek to restrict the amount of time the Senate may spend in considering a bill, but this requires the concurrence of the president, who is obliged first to consult with her Council of State (Article 24.1). Third, a majority of members of the Senate, along with at least one-third of the Dail (parliament), may ask the president not to sign into law a bill passed by both houses; after consultation with the Council of State, the president may either sign the bill or cause "the will of people" to be ascertained, entailing either a referendum or a general election. In two of these cases, any request to the president implies the unlikely event of a serious clash between the Dail and the Senate; the third implies an emergency. In this context, it is not surprising that the president's powers have not been used.

On the other hand, three other powers have been used. First, the president may after consultation with the Council of State, convene either or both houses of the Oirectheas (Senate and Dail) (Article 13.2.3). Up to 1990, the only instance in which this power has been invoked was when de Valera convened a meeting of both houses in 1969 to address them on the fiftieth anniversary of the inaugural meeting of the First Dail. Second, the president may refer a bill to the Supreme Court to obtain the court's ruling on its compatibility with the Constitution, again following consultation with her Council of State. This has been the most frequently used power, used on eight occasions; in three cases (1942, 1981, and 1983) the bills have been deemed unconstitutional. Perhaps the most potentially important power contained in Article 13.2.2, which states that the "the president may in his [her] absolute discretion refuse to dissolve Dail Eireann on the advice of the Taoiseach (prime minister) who has ceased to retain the support of a majority in Dail Eireann." There have been three occasions on which the president could have used this power, but in all cases the dissolution has been granted.

The Irish Constitution provides that the president be elected for a seven-year term, which is renewable once by single transferable vote of those eligible to vote in Dail elections. Whereas presidents coming to the end of their first term may nominate themselves for reelection, the nomination for first-time candidates is extremely restrictive. Candidates must be nominated either by a minimum of twenty Dail deputies and/or senators or by the councils of at least four counties and/or county boroughs. …

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