Áras18: The ‘cosy consensus’ may be our best option.
The primary purpose of Presidential debates is to gather all the nominated candidates together under one roof, allow a platform for candidates to set out their mandate clearly and in the end give the electorate a clearer understanding of the role of the office of the president and what each candidate can bring to the role if elected. Unfortunately, none of the above criteria was achieved and may have left voters both confused and less confident in the candidates who put themselves forward for the live debate. If you were expecting an Americanised style of debate full of allegations, fire and fury, then I hate to disappoint you, but the office of the Irish presidency is not as exciting as our American counterparts. Therefore a health warning must be advised. It is important to note that despite the lack of controversy and scandal that we would be accustomed to seeing during a general election, the limited powers (four to be exact) of the office of the president doesn’t give much room for scandal and controversy to develop. Therefore this limits the scope of questions that one can put to presidential candidates.
Unfortunately, much of what graced our screens last night was a regurgitation of Saturdays RTE radio one debate. However, it wasn’t all bad, one positive note about the debate was the ability for the live studio audience to put forth their questions to the candidates. After we got past the regurgitation of how the office of the president is funded and how its monies are spent and the candidates venting their frustration at president Higgins and Sean Gallaher’s decision not to take part in the debate. All candidates wholly agreed that the salary, the expenditure and the absence of President Higgins and Sean Gallaher were all unacceptable conditions.
However, one of the more interesting observations of the debate was the lack of understanding by the candidates of the constitutional role of the president, articles within the constitution and general constitutional practice. One question asked candidates how they would maintain the constitution and what their favourite part of the Irish constitution was. First, Liadh Nì Riada stated she favoured articles two and three as it allows for the possibility of a united Ireland and to enshrine neutrality into the Irish constitution. Firstly, four out of the eight candidates seek a united Ireland, which the president has no power to implement and requires a border poll. Along with the idea of a united Ireland, homelessness and the housing crisis were mentioned in passing (although no solutions were given). I hate to be a pessimist, however, if a united Ireland is achieved (unlikely: an argument for another day) the cost of an extra six counties would only add to the burden on state funds for solving the crisis’s we are facing in health and housing. The numbers don’t add up, and one would argue it is only a matter of salience to grab voters’ attention.
Joan Freeman didn’t point to any article, but simply to the oath of that, the president shall take when he or she assumes office as the most important part. Therefore, it appears that Mrs Freeman did not do the homework prescribed to her and her fellow candidates to revise the constitution after Saturday’s radio one debate. Mrs Freeman stated on Saturday that she would not sign a bill passed by the Oireachtas into law that ‘if it is prudent to the constitution (unconstitutional) then that would be the only reason I would refuse it’. However, this is the only reason for a president can refuse to sign a bill and must not be coerced by members of government which some candidates suggested.
Gavin Duffy went down another route stating that there were many aspects of the constitution that he thought needed a change and suggested a 2021 review and change of the constitution. However, he was stunned to find out that that would take not one but countless referenda to alter (as stated in the constitution). Ironically, before this statement, Duffy mentioned the exacerbate cost of referenda in general. However, yet again the president does not have the power to alter the constitution. That responsibility falls within the powers of the Oireachtas to propose amendments to the constitution to the people for referendums. Finally, a jittery Peter Casey who I think it is safe to say can be labelled as the joker of the candidates pointed to our neutrality and that Ireland is not neutral but military non-aligned (the only thing I can agree with him on). However, despite the president being commander in chief of the Irish army, it’s the minister for defence, i.e. the Taoiseach who carries most of the weight of the armed forces.
As stated the points of such presidential debates is for candidates to project strength and the ability to carry out the functions of the office they may one day hold. We need candidates who can hold their own and not constantly need to be corrected on the fundamental constitutional practices of the office of President. This debate may have secured the incumbent Michael D Higgins an extra seven years despite his absence and given his performance on RTE radio one on Saturday. Therefore, over the next few weeks and upcoming debates, all candidates must learn and reassure voters that they are aware of the constitutional role and indeed limitations of powers that come with the office of the president. However, as it stands, this ‘cosy consensus’ after last night’s debacle may be our best option. Therefore, I am not sure if Michael D Higgins will be hanging up his boots anytime soon.