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A president with no power - what the Irish leader can and cannot do

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David Norris campaigning on Moore Street in Dublin on Monday

The presidential campaign sparked into life here last week with more embarrassing revelations about the candidates uncovered by the media.

Probably the most eyebrow-lifting was the revelation that David Norris was on disability pay from Trinity College for 16 years, even though he was a senator at the time.

He wasn't well enough to lecture the students, it seems, but he was well able to lecture the nation from the Senate.

It's hard to know who to blame more, him or Trinity. Money that should have been used to run the university (which like all Irish universities is under severe financial pressure) was being diverted to provide sick pay for Norris, even though he was on a Senate salary.

Then there were the revelations that he had an affair with a student (which teachers are not supposed to do) and that he had tried to get citizenship for a more recent boyfriend.

And the questions about the clemency letters he wrote for his former lover who had been convicted of rape continued. His credibility is completely blown at this stage.

There were less dramatic, but interesting, revelations about other candidates. Mary Davis, we learned, was appointed to so many state boards during the Bertie Ahern era that she must have spent hours getting the stains of the gravy train out of her stylish suits.

She does a lot of talking about volunteering, but it turns out she was getting over $200,000 a year for her role as head of Special Olympics.

Another "independent" candidate, Sean Gallagher, was in Fianna Fail for 30 years and did not resign from the national executive of the party until this year.

Dana, it turns out, is an American citizen, which seems a little odd for someone who wants to be an Irish president.

The Sinn Fein candidate Martin McGuinness faced even more questions last week about his IRA past and is still not answering any of them. The Fine Gael candidate Gay Mitchell is so invisible he hardly matters, but one paper reminded us last week that he has a cousin who is one of Ireland's biggest criminals, which at least got him a headline.

Only the opinion poll leader, the Labor Party candidate Michael D. Higgins, appeared to be untouched last week by the shock headlines. But give it time.

Higgins was quite the radical leftie in his younger days, very anti-American and anti-Israel, and very admiring of Cuba and dodgy places in South America, and there are lots of his emotive but naïve speeches from the old days on file.

The mud flying last week was partly a result of how boring this election has been and how desperate the media are to stir things up.

It was also a reflection of the caliber of the B-list of candidates we have to choose from. Each day's papers seem to bring new embarrassing revelations about them.

It's mildly amusing, but the public mainly remain indifferent, even bored. They rightly see that the presidential race is of little importance given the extent of the real problems we face.

Unlike in the U.S. or France, for example, where the president has real power, in Ireland the president has little or no power to do anything other than stand to attention at ceremonial events, look dignified, wave, shake hands and make uplifting but fundamentally empty speeches.

In that sense, it doesn't really matter who gets it. That's the reality and people here know it. It makes some of the campaign "messages" from the candidates in this election laughable.

There has been a lot of talk about working for jobs, restoring the economy, providing real leadership, re-establishing faith in our political system, honesty and transparency and so on. It's all aspirational waffle.

The next president, like previous presidents, will have no power to do anything effective to influence any of these issues.

So before we all get carried away on the river of hype, let's reconsider exactly what an Irish president can and cannot do.

The president is the first citizen of Ireland, and the Constitution says he or she takes “precedence over all other persons in the state.” That much is clear.

Does this mean the president is the most powerful person in the country?

Certainly not. The role is mainly ceremonial and symbolic. In fact being president severely restricts the office holder, something previous occupants of the office who were former senior politicians, have found difficult to accept.

The fact is that the president cannot make a speech of any significance without first clearing it with the government. The president even needs the permission of the government to leave the state -- an indication of where the real power lies.

The taoiseach (prime minister) is the most powerful political office in Ireland.

The president does perform an important constitutional function. But the role is mainly one of watchdog or gatekeeper rather than initiator or leader.

The president cannot initiate or even suggest legislation. But the president does have an important formal role in making the laws of Ireland because all laws must be signed by the president before they take effect.
It is in this context that one of the few real powers that the president has arises. If the president thinks a law passed by the Oireachtas (Parliament and Senate) may be unconstitutional, the president can refuse to sign and instead refer the bill to the Supreme Court for a decision.

Before doing so, the president must seek the advice of the Council of State, a body made up of former taoisigh (prime ministers), chief justices, ex-presidents and other senior officials as well as seven people appointed by the President. But the president does not have to take their advice and can refer the proposed new law to the Supreme Court anyway.

The president formally appoints the taoiseach and government ministers, but only after the taoiseach has been elected by the Dail (Parliament), and the ministers the taoiseach selects have been approved by the Dail. The president gives them their seals of office but has no choice as to who will be appointed. In a similar way, all senior judges, army officers and ambassadors are appointed by the president. But again, it is mainly ceremonial.

Most of the powers of the president are ceremonial functions, performed on the instruction of the government. It's the same with the army.

The Constitution says the president is the chief of staff (supreme commander) of the Irish Defense Forces. But the president cannot instruct the army to do anything and cannot say much about the army except "on the advice of" the government. (This may be a disappointment to that well-known army commander Martin McGuinness, if he ends up being successful!)

The president is permitted to address the Houses of the Oireachtas or the nation as a whole (probably on TV), but that address must first be approved by the government. So such a speech is not going to contain any criticism of or deviation from government policy.

The president can also refuse to sign a bill until it has been approved by the people of Ireland in a referendum.

However, the president cannot do this without receiving a petition from members of the Houses of the Oireachtas asking for this course of action. A majority of the members of the Seanad, and at least one third of the members of the Dail, have to sign the petition, which makes it very unlikely that it will ever happen. Plus the president has to consult the Council of State.

Another formal function that the president performs is to dissolve the Dail, which triggers a general election. But the president only does so following a request from the taoiseach. The president can’t decide when a general election should be held.

The president, however, does have the power to refuse a taoiseach's request that the Dail be dissolved.

Let's say a taoiseach has lost the support of a majority in the Dail at a time when there have been a number of elections in a short space of time.

A president might decide to refuse, and when this happens the taoiseach must then resign and allow the Dail to elect a new taoiseach, without having a general election.

This happened in 1994 when Mary Robinson was president. Taoiseach Albert Reynolds had lost a vote of confidence in the Dail (over the Father Brendan Smyth abuse affair) and wanted to call an election.

But instead of an election, a new government was formed by a coalition of different parties.

The president is not required to consult with the Council of State when making the decision on whether to refuse a dissolution of the Dail. This is the only time the president can act in direct opposition to a request from the taoiseach.

No president has yet formally refused a dissolution of the Dail (Robinson let Reynolds know her thinking so he did not formally ask her for a dissolution).

All of which shows that the president of Ireland does have an important Constitutional role. But very little real power. And no power at all when it comes to initiating things or changing or influencing government policy.

Instead, our president is a figurehead, much like the Queen is in Britain.

So far we have had eight presidents and the first six accepted this role under the Constitution. But the last two -- the Two Marys -- have pushed the boundaries, trying to enlarge the role and give it more influence, mainly through inspirational speeches and symbolic gestures.

Both Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese were never short of confidence or a sense of their own importance. But even they did not succeed in expanding the role.

The next president is unlikely to do so either. And looking at the candidates, that is probably a relief.

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