The Irish Presidential Election

The Irish Presidential Election by Annette J Dunlea

Published In The Carrigdhoun Newspaper 25th June 2011 p.9

With the upcoming election it is interesting to look at the role of the Irish Presidency. The President of Ireland is the head of state of Ireland. The President is usually directly elected by the people for seven years, and can be elected for a maximum of two terms. The presidency is largely a ceremonial office, but the President does exercise certain limited powers with absolute discretion. The office was established by the Constitution of Ireland in 1937, and became internationally recognised as head of state in 1949 following the coming into force of the Republic of Ireland Act.The present incumbent is Mary McAleese, who took office on 11 November 1997.The Constitution of Ireland provides for a parliamentary system of government, under which the role of the head of state is largely a ceremonial one. The President is formally one of three tiers of the Oireachtas , which also comprises Dail Eireann and Seanad Eireann.Unlike many other republics, executive authority is expressly vested in the Government. Thus, the President is not even the nominal chief executive. The Government is obliged, however, to keep the President generally informed on matters of domestic and foreign policy. Most of the functions of the President may only be carried out in accordance with the strict instructions of the Constitution, or the binding ‘advice’ of the Government. The President does, however, possess certain personal powers that may be exercised at his or her discretion.The President appoints the Taoiseach and other ministers, and accepts their resignations. The Taoiseach is appointed upon the nomination of the Dail, and the remainder of the cabinet upon the nomination of the Taoiseach and approval of the Dail. Ministers are dismissed on the advice of the Taoiseach and the Taoiseach must, unless there is a dissolution of the Dail, resign upon losing the confidence of the house.

The President appoints the judges to all Courts of the Republic of Ireland, on the advice of the Government.She convenes and dissolves the Dail.This power is exercised on the advice of the Taoiseach; government or Dail approval is not needed. The President may only refuse a dissolution when a Taoiseach has lost the confidence of the Dail.She signs bills into law.The President cannot veto a bill that the Dail and the Seanad have adopted. However, he/she may refer it to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality. If the Supreme Court upholds the bill, the President must sign it however if it is found to be repugnant the constitution, the President will decline to give assent.Represents the state in foreign affairs.This power is exercised only on the advice of the Government. The President accredits ambassadors and receives the letters of credence of foreign diplomats. Ministers sign international treaties in the President’s name. This role was not exercised by the President prior to the Republic of Ireland Act 1948. She is the supreme commander of the Defence Forces.This role is somewhat similar in statute to that of a commander-in-chief. An officer’s commission is signed and sealed by the President. This is a nominal position, the powers of which are exercised on the advice of the Government.

The President, on the advice of the Government, has “the right of pardon and the power to commute or remit punishment”.Pardon, for miscarriages of justice, has applied rarely: Thomas Quinn in 1940, Brady in 1943, and Nicky Kelly in 1992.The current procedure is specified by Section 7 of the Criminal Procedure Act, 1993. There were plans in 2005 for paramilitary “on the runs” to receive pardons as part of the Northern Ireland peace process, to supplement the 1998 early release of serving prisoners after the Good Friday Agreement.This was controversial and was soon abandoned along with similar British proposals.Power of commutation and remittance are not restricted to the President,though this was the case for death sentences handed down prior to the abolition of capital punishment.Other functions specified by statute or otherwise include: The President is ex officio President of the Irish Red Cross Society. The President appoints, on the advice of the Government, the Senior Professors and chairman of the council of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies the governor of the Central Bank of Ireland; the members of the Irish Financial Services Appeals Tribunal;the Ombudsman; and the members of the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission.

How is the President elected?The President is directly elected by secret ballot using the Alternative Vote, the single-winner analogue of the Single Transferable Vote. Under the Presidential Elections Act, 1993 a candidate’s election formally takes place in the form of a ‘declaration’ by the returning officer. Where more than one candidate is nominated, the election is ‘adjourned’ so that a ballot can take place, allowing the electors to choose between candidates. A Presidential election is held in time for the winner to take office the day after the end of the incumbent’s seven-year term. In the event of premature vacancy, an election must be held within sixty days.Only resident Irish citizens aged eighteen or more may vote; a 1983 bill to extend the right to resident British citizens was ruled unconstitutional.Presidents can serve a maximum of two terms, consecutive or otherwise.Candidates must be Irish citizens aged 35 or more.They must be nominated by one of the following:At least 20 members of the Oireachtas.At least four county or city councils. Themselves if they want to run for a second run in office.Where only one candidate is nominated, he or she is deemed elected without the need for a ballot.For this reason, where there is a consensus among political parties not to have a contest, the President may be ‘elected’ without the occurrence of an actual ballot. Since the establishment of the office this has occurred on six occasions.The next presidential election will be held in October 2011, barring an earlier vacation of the office by the incumbent president.

The President has no vice president. In the event of a premature vacancy a successor must be elected within sixty days. In a vacancy or where the President is unavailable, the duties and functions of the office are carried out by a collective vice-presidency known as the Presidential Commission, consisting of the Chief Justice, the Ceann Comhairle (speaker) of the Dail, and the Cathaoirleach (chairperson) of the Seanad. Routine functions, such as signing uncontentious bills into law, have often been fulfilled by the Presidential Commission when the President is abroad on a state visit. The government’s power to prevent the President leaving the state is relevant in aligning the diplomatic and legislative calendars.

The official residence of the President is Uras an Uachtarain, located in the Phoenix Park in Dublin. The ninety-two room building formerly served as the ‘out-of-season’ residence of the Irish Lord Lieutenant and the residence of two of the three Irish Governors-General: Tim Healy and James McNeill. The President is normally referred to as ‘President’ or ‘Uachtaran’, rather than ‘Mr/Madam President’ or similar forms. (Note that A hUachtarain (vocative case) would be the correct address in Irish.) The style used is normally His Excellency/Her Excellency (Irish: A Shoilse/A Soilse). The Presidential Salute is taken from the National Anthem, “Amhran na bhFiann”. It consists of the first four bars followed by the last five, without lyrics.

The President takes an oath on acceptance of office.’’In the presence of Almighty God I do solemnly and sincerely promise and declare that I will maintain the Constitution of Ireland and uphold its laws, that I will fulfil my duties faithfully and conscientiously in accordance with the Constitution and the law, and that I will dedicate my abilities to the service and the welfare of the people of Ireland. May God direct and sustain me.’’ To date every President has subscribed to the declaration in Irish.

The President can be removed from office in two ways, neither of which has ever been invoked. The Supreme Court, in a sitting of at least five judges, may find the President “permanently incapacitated”, while the Oireachtas may remove the President for “stated misbehaviour”. Either house of the Oireachtas may instigate the latter process by passing an impeachment resolution, provided at least thirty members move it and at least two thirds support it. The other house will then either investigate the stated charges or commission a body to do so; following which at least two thirds of members must agree both that the President is guilty and that the charges warrant removal.

Ireland’s current President is Mary McAleese who commenced her second term as President on 11th November 2004. Independant David Norris has written to councillors around the country asking them to nominate him as a presidential candidate.In his letter to councillors Mr Norris said as an Independent without the support of a political party he was seeking support from across the political spectrum.Although I recognise the limits of the office of president, I believe there is an historic opportunity at the moment in supporting my nomination as a candidate, he said.At this time, we need a head of State that will showcase Ireland to the world as a modern, sophisticated and inclusive society.Mitchell and Cox are also running for election. Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin has said his party will decide on its candidacy for the Presidential race within “the coming weeks”.The Labour Party ared deciding who they will put forward this weekend. According to the opinion polls Senator Norris is in the leading position. Surely, today the concept of political nomination is no longer appropriate and it is just a way of the politicians controlling who is elected. Whoever, is elected I hope he represents Ireland well and has a high standard to follow in the footprints of some influential people of late : Mary Robinson and Mary McAlesse.

A referendum on new legislation will be held on the same day.A new reform unit has been set up to fast-track three key pieces of legislation for the government.Legislation to protect so called whistleblowers who expose wrongdoing or corruption in the public service is on teh agenda.The legislation, which was pledged in the Programme for Government, is to be fast tracked following the allegations of abuse at the Rostrevor nursing home, Rathgar in Dublin. It would propose much stronger powers of investigation for Oireachtas committees, including the power to compel witnesses to appear.The holding of a referendum requires the enactment of a Constitutional amendment bill by the Oireachtas.Meanwhile, a third piece of legislation on Freedom of Information will come under the aegis of the reform unit to fulfil a commitment in the Programme for Government to restore the Freedom of Information Act to what it was before it was undermined by the outgoing government.The act is to be extended to other public bodies, including the administrative side of the Garda Siochana, subject to security exceptions.The government’s stated commitment is to extend both Freedom of Information and The Ombudsman Act, to ensure that all statutory bodies, and all bodies significantly funded from the public purse, are covered.People will be asked to judge on a decrease of judges’ pay and it is expected to be passed.

The End


About Author Annette J Dunlea Irish Writer

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