Presidency is a lot more than PR gig with a nice house

INSIDE POLITICS: Despite current populist clamour, it is hard to see how Gay Byrne could be suited for the role of head of State…

INSIDE POLITICS:Despite current populist clamour, it is hard to see how Gay Byrne could be suited for the role of head of State

THE GREAT Irish politician and patriot Tom Kettle once wrote that politics was the only profession about which it was widely believed that an amateur could do a better job than a professional.

The current media clamour for Gay Byrne to run for the presidency is a classic expression of the populist notion that somebody from outside the political world would be better qualified to carry out the functions of head of State than an experienced politician.

This view is partly based on the mistaken impression that the presidency is not really a serious job but a nice public relations gig with a good salary and pension, a nice house in the park and plenty of foreign travel thrown in for good measure.


In fact the president does a huge amount of demanding representational work at home and abroad.

One experienced diplomat summed up this aspect of the role as follows: “Representation involves careful preparation, paying attention however boring the event, reading up on who you are meeting, keeping a smile on your face, standing up for long periods and taking an interest in what is being said to you over events that can last for hours. Being the symbol of Ireland imposes quite considerable demands. It is physically quite exhausting.”

The truly impressive performances by both President McAleese and Queen Elizabeth during the historic visit in May were the result of meticulous briefing on every second of the programme which was worked on for months in advance.

Aside from the representational role, the president also has constitutional functions which, though they are limited, are vitally important.

A president can refer a Bill passed by the Dáil and Seanad to the Supreme Court. This power has to be exercised very carefully because, on the one hand, the referral of a Bill can be seen as a breach with the government but, on the other, it can ensure that a law can never be challenged again if it is approved by the court.

Another important function, which has never been exercised, is the right of a president to refuse a dissolution to a taoiseach who has lost the confidence of the Dáil. President Hillery famously resisted pressure from Charles Haughey to exercise this power in January, 1982, and deny Garret FitzGerald the right to call an election.

In November 1994 it was a moot point whether Mary Robinson would have agreed to an election if Albert Reynolds had tried to go to the country when Labour pulled the plug on his government. In the event the government changed without an election but the uncertainty about what the president would do, if a dissolution was sought, influenced the course of events.

The ability to make fine judgments in difficult political circumstances is an important attribute in a president. There is a misapprehension that the current President Mary McAleese and her predecessor Mary Robinson came from outside the political world. Nothing could be further from the truth.

While neither served in government, both of them, particularly Mary Robinson, had considerable political experience. Robinson was a prominent member of the Seanad for almost 20 years and took a pioneering role in introducing liberal legislation in the Upper House long before such measures became acceptable in the Dáil.

She also had the experience of standing for the Dáil as an unsuccessful Labour Party candidate in 1977.

McAleese did not have the same depth of political experience but through her work as a journalist and a lawyer she was involved in many of the major political controversies in the 1980s and she stood as a Fianna Fáil candidate in the 1987 general election.

Robinson and McAleese developed their own agendas on Northern Ireland and international development. They had to be very careful not to cut across the government but both showed great skill in carving out a role without provoking a crisis. They were helped by good political advisers and by the quality of the senior civil servants assigned to them.

It is hard to see how Gay Byrne is fitted for the job on any of these fronts. Not only does he not have any political experience, he has spent his broadcasting career pouring scorn on politicians. It made for good radio and television ratings but it reflected a limited understanding of how the political system works and the difficult everyday choices faced by political leaders.

Byrne’s hostility to the European Union and all it stands for is a perfectly legitimate position for a private citizen to hold but, if he was elected president, it would put him at loggerheads with the Government, assuming that Sinn Féin does not come to power before the end of the next presidential term. Given that the next Irish presidency of the EU is coming up in the first half of 2013 it would, at the very least, be interesting to see how he comported himself in meetings with “mad” EU leaders.

Then there is the question of his age, both in terms of how he would conduct an election campaign and how he would fare in the Áras if he won. The campaign would also feature questions about issues like his personal finances which politicians are used to dealing with in public but private citizens are not.

There is no guarantee that Byrne would win in any case. The Red C poll was encouraging for him but he is far from being a shoo-in. With the 28 per cent share of the vote he received in the poll he would struggle to beat Michael D Higgins.

Supporters of Fine Gael’s Gay Mitchell point out that in a poll a little over a month before the last presidential election in 1997 celebrity candidate, Adi Roche, was on 38 per cent and looked certain to win the presidency. In the event she ended up getting 5 per cent of the vote. It just goes to show that the campaign itself will be the determining factor. For all of the candidates, either declared or hovering in the wings, that represents both a challenge and an opportunity.