Got something you don’t want to say? Ask the President
Michael D. Higgins is a politician of many admirable qualities. Very few people who came into contact with him could dislike him. He is a man of deep ideological belief and one who could connect with people across age groups and varied backgrounds. At various times I have found myself agreeing and disagreeing with his position but I have always found that he is a man of incredible intellect with enviable debating skills.
As president his most recent venture into comment on economic matters and the EU is causing controversy. Let me say at the outset that there was very little in what he said that I could personally disagree with, in fact he espoused my views quite well. Therein lies the problem. A president is not meant to be espousing my views on such matters because by doing so s/he must be disagreeing with other Irish citizens’ views. The President is a representative of the entire people, not a section, not an ideology not a party or particular position. The President is there to act as a figure head for the country as a whole and that is why divisive or highly opinionated comments are avoided.
You make think this is unfair but think about it a little more. Today I might agree with what the president said but what if tomorrow it was a president espousing some radical right wing view on economic or social matters? Would I be as happy? The words President Higgins used would be perfect had they come from the Taoiseach or Tánaiste. Why? Because while the position of Taoiseach, for instance, is a role that represents the nation too, it is also a role that comes with an opposition. The parliamentary system is there to ensure that if we disagree with a Taoiseach we can support someone else who can call him/her directly to account. The role of President has no opposition, no person with a right to hold question time on an issue. The President is above all that. It is exactly for this reason that a president must be mindful that they represent so much more than one particular view.
The problem is that this is not the first time President Higgins has strayed into this territory. Only a matter of days ago he also courted controversy by attending a Labour party event and discussing the merits of the Labour party. That seems innocuous enough until you think of the uproar if it were President McGuinness attending an SF event. Somehow, I can’t help but feel this is not all Michael D. Higgins fault however.
There is something about Higgins that always reminds me of Brian Lenihan Snr. A good man, a highly intelligent and well read man, but often used by the party to defend the indefensible or to make a speech that no one else wants to. The cabinet must approve any speech made by a president. We have to assume that the government has had no issue with the president’s utterances. That is probably because it suits from time to time. I am going to be controversial here and say that I think the president is becoming a party extension of government. The Taoiseach and Tánaiste don’t want to upset people in Europe by saying something so call the President, have him test the waters by putting it out there and it will carry weight yet we can disown it if necessary.
The president has now, on a number of occasions said things that seem to be about sparking debate and flying kites on government policy. This is not the role of the president. It cannot be a position where if there is something too delicate for us to say sure we will ask the president to throw it out there.
Michael D. Higgins may be a good man, I may agree with much of what he says but there is a dangerous precedent being set and if he is not careful one of these days the government will drop him like a hot potato when something doesn’t work out. Whether we like it or not the role of President is one largely of ceremony. Due to party political division some of us will always be offended if an FF. FG or SF Taoiseach is attending an event or greeting someone, simply because we know we are in daily opposition to that Taoiseach. The President is the person that we can all be happy to see attend the event, discuss Ireland’s merits, present an award. Why? Because we are not in conflict with the President, there is no opposition to the president because they do not get embroiled in opinion and divisive debate.
If you want to be doing that then you should be a TD, a Senator, a councillor or any of the other multitudes of roles we have for argument, commentary and debate. We have only one that is meant to be seen as a unifying position above all opinion, ideology and argument. It means that role is weak in terms of its powers, but it means a great deal in other terms. A president is not there to alienate people or to make us feel that they are the one in touch with our feelings on political matters.