Creative fiction and the Irish presidential system

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Every so often the monarchists come out with something so incredibly wrong, you have to assume they have deliberately ignored the facts in an attempt to manipulate the debate. It astounds me that otherwise seemingly intelligent people can make such obviously incorrect claims.

Take, for example, this article on the ACM's website attacking Ireland's recent presidential election. Where to start on this one? The author claimed that the second-placed Sean Gallagher had been "proved" to be corrupt. You'd expect then, by the normal standards of British justice, that there would have been a trail when it was found Mr Gallagher was corrupt (for those monarchists who don't understand what I've just said, I'm talking about the presumption of innocence — you know, the venerable old cornerstone to the criminal justice system). In any case, this is hardly a good argument — because the Irish head of state is elected, therefore the people of Ireland were able to make their own judgment on Gallagher's alleged corrupt dealings. Hence, the former frontrunner lost the election.

Compare that with, say, the tenure of a certain former Governor-General of Australia, Peter Hollingworth — a good mate, by the way, of the bloke who advised the Queen to appoint him, the then Prime Minister John Howard. In sharp contrast to Ireland, the Australian people had no chance to assess Mr Hollingworth’s dealings as head of the Anglican Church in Australia to assess his suitability as Australia’s de facto head of state — it was just a case of take it (with no option to leave it). And then, when allegations did surface, the only person who could remove Hollingworth from office was, yes, the Prime Minister — who alone can advise the Queen to dismiss the Governor-General, but who chose not do so because, well, they were mates! Score one to the Irish presidency, nil to the Governor-General.

Then the ACM claims that the overall winner of the election, Michael D Higgins, was a "party hack" and a former cabinet minister. This sidesteps the fact that Irish presidents have always resigned their party memberships on election to the office, as Michael D did during his victory speech at Dublin Castle. Technically, they're all independents. Compare that with the number of party hacks appointed to the office of Governor-General. Remember Bill Hayden, anyone? In New Zealand, we've even had a former Prime Minister appointed to the role by his own party. Sure, the Irish presidents are often from a political party, but that doesn't make them hacks — nor does it mean that Prime Ministers can automatically be trusted to get it right. I should add that one of the main criticisms of the Irish president is the fact that they're nominated by the Irish parliament or local authorities, effectively meaning the political parties control the nominations process. Score two to the Irish presidency, nil to the Governor-General.

The author then takes a swipe at Martin McGuiness, former IRA commander and the Sinn Fein candidate. McGuiness finished a distant third. Apparently the fact McGuiness placed third shows the evil of the system. Putting aside McGuiness's atonement for the crimes of the IRA and his dedication to the Northern Ireland peace process, the fact he didn't win again reflects the strength of democracy in Ireland, not a weakness. Compare that to, say, Lords Lieutenants past of Ireland who committed heinous violent crimes in the name of the British Crown. No-one ever got the chance to vote on them.

And then we hear that the Republic of Ireland is deeply corrupt. Not as corrupt, according to the Corruption Perceptions Index, as the monarchies of the United Kingdom, Japan, Belgium, Barbados and Qatar — all of whom rank highly on the index. Interestingly, Ireland is ranked 8 out of ten in 2010 — and has made strong progress since 2003, when it received a score of 6.9. In the same period, the United Kingdom – home of the monarchy the ACM so staunchly defends – has declined rapidly. No-one is claiming Ireland is not corrupt, but to state that Ireland's problems relate to the level of corruption in the country is wrong — especially since there are monarchies that are more corrupt. The author then strangely claims that the fact Irish ministers and MPs have faced criminal charges is a bad thing. No, it is a sign of a system that is willing and able to deal to corruption.

The author then laughably claims that the Irish president has been stripped of all of reserve powers. This is totally wrong — needing only a quick look at the Irish constitution and Irish political history to disprove the claim. It is true that the Irish president doesn't have discretion to appoint the head of government, which is determined by the parliament. That doesn't mean the President doesn't have constitutional powers — and it appears the claim is made, as usual, in ignorance of how the constitutional conventions around the office of Governor-General work.

Under the Irish constitution, the president has reserve powers "in absolute discretion". They are:

  • The right to remove the prime minister;

  • The right to refuse requests to dissolve the parliament;

  • The right to refer of Bills of parliament to referendums;

  • Referral of bills to the Supreme Court;

  • Abridgement of the time for bills in the senate;

  • Appointment of a Committee of Privileges to solve a dispute between the two Houses of the parliament;

  • Address to the Parliament;

  • Address to the Nation;

  • This is essentially the powers of the Governor-General, plus a number of additional powers to resolve disputes between Ireland's two houses, along with the additional right our governors-general don't have to refer bills to referendums or to the Supreme Court. However, the critical difference between governors-general and the Irish presidency is that, because it is the Prime Minister who advises the Queen to appoint and dismiss the Governor-General, the ability of the Governor-General to use their reserve powers is severely curtailed. Their only real chance to use their powers is if, as Australia found in 1975, the Governor-General sacks a Prime Minister before they have the Governor-General sacked by the Queen — a Mexican-standoff in constitutional terms. In other words, the claim that the Irish system concentrates power in the hands of the Prime Minister is utterly false, the inconvenient truth for monarchists is that it is monarchies that concentrate power in the hands of prime ministers. Irish presidents have used their reserve powers, especially the power to refer bills to the Irish Supreme Court. Irish president three, Governor-General nil.

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