Patricia Feehily: Could we do without the office of president?

Column - Don't Mind Me

Patricia Feehily


Patricia Feehily

Could we do without the office of president? ?

WITH all due respects to his Excellency, Michael D Higgins, and his equally distinguished predecessors, I really don’t see why we need a President at all. As a parliamentary democracy we should be well able to stand on our own two feet by now.

I don’t see why we need the Seanad either. I thought five years ago that this particular body would have been dismantled by now. But I was going with the flow then and now I think I’m the only surviving abolitionist.

The ceremonial aspect of the presidency is grand to be sure, and the constitutional restraints embodied in the role are somewhat re-assuring, but apart from reflecting our own grandiose delusions and prejudices, there’s not a lot else he, or she, can do for us, apart from leading us into battle should we ever find ourselves that way inclined again. And that’s most unlikely.

Scrap the anachronistic office and the Seanad with it, I say, and spare a few bob for the rainy day and the Brexit offensive. Allocate the 48 rooms in the Aras to the homeless and get over, once and for all, our penchant for colonial pomp. Either that or loosen the constitutional shackles and let whoever holds the office kick up a bit of a shindig on our behalf when it’s needed and at least give us value for our money. The last thing in the world we want at this stage of our evolution is to be patronised.

I wish I could say the same for our diaspora, some of whom can’t wait to get a say in the election of our President, although there are many of them, I presume, who couldn’t care less. Someone should tell the more enthusiastic ones that the office is mainly a ceremonial one, without any great power, and they might be better off if they were given a say in the selection of the Rose of Tralee.

Now, while I have a great affection for the diaspora - especially my own relations - I’m in two minds about the prospect of extending the franchise in presidential elections to millions of Irish citizens living abroad.

For a start, how would they know what’s best for us when they don’t live here anymore and when some of them have never lived here at all?

What they know about us at this stage is largely hearsay. And why should they have a say in our electoral process when they don’t pay any taxes here? That isn’t as mean spirited as it may sound. Previous generations of Irish exiles sent money home to keep the old homestead going, and if anyone ever deserved a say in how the country was run, they did. But they were never even consulted. Anyway, I don’t even know if they’re that clingy anymore after a couple of generations.

They may well, of course, pick a better president for us than we could possibly choose ourselves, but at the end of the day, they won’t have to pay for the pretty massive salary or the even more massive upkeep of the incumbent. We’re the ones who will have to foot the bill, and some bill it will be if future presidents are expected to keep in touch with their unwieldy electorate all over the globe.

On the other hand, they might not pick the best person for the job.

Some of them feel hard done by at having to leave the Emerald Isle in the first place and think that we let them down. It might well be payback time for some ex pats.

My biggest fear, however, is that the electorate, bloated with exiles and the descendants of the ubiquitous Irish granny worldwide, will diminish the office, anachronistic and all as it is, and in vastly outnumbering us they will inevitably dilute my vote and your vote. Then, before we know it, a TV celebrity like Donald Trump will have beaten Miriam O’Callaghan in the race to the Park and there won’t be a thing we can do about it. But I’m warning you now, I’ll be as mad as hell altogether if I find tax exiles being allowed to vote and getting their man or woman elected. That, for me anyway, would be the final straw.

I know it sounds curmudgeonly and terribly ungenerous not to be jumping at the chance to share the franchise with the extended Irish family. But I have my misgivings and I have no idea how much a global election to fill the Irish presidency would cost us. I don’t even know how they will ever be able to police the process or how they can prevent fraud, especially if exiles are going to be allowed to vote on line. At the end of the day, I don’t even know what‘s in it for the exiles, apart from the token gesture of assurance that we haven’t forgotten them. But they already know that, don’t they?

A Referendum on the subject is due next year, according to Taoiseach Enda Kenny, speaking from Philadelphia. I’m hoping the Presidency will be abolished by then, because otherwise I don’t know how I’m going to turn down a chance to embrace the far flung diaspora and give them an opportunity to have a say in how our affairs are run? I’ll still be a citizen of no mean country I know, but I’m going to feel like a traitor.