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16th Oct 2018

Why on earth does Ireland even have presidential debates?

Carl Kinsella

Presidential Debates

What on earth made us think we should have presidential debates?

First of all, let me admit one thing. The potential for entertainment value is very much there.

For example, businessman Peter Casey’s lofty pronouncement last night that he would appoint seven women to his Council of State before falling to pieces when host Claire Byrne pressed him to simply name a woman, any woman, was glorious car crash television.

Similarly, Byrne’s prompt for each of the candidates to demonstrate a working knowledge of the Constitution was also met with relatively blank stares. The closest we got to an answer was Sinn Féin MEP Liadh Ní Riada’s answer of ‘Articles 2 and 3’ — the ones which were replaced by the Good Friday Agreement.

President Michael D. Higgins came in for criticism for his decision to only take part in two of the televised debates. Sean Gallagher even more so — given that his attitude seems to suggest that he’s on a level above the other four challengers for reasons unknown to everyone in Ireland, besides, apparently, Sean Gallagher.

But what good does an Irish presidential debate actually do?

Televised presidential debates were made popular in (where else?) America, a country where the President writes and proposes their own legislation, can legitimately veto bills passed by the House of Representatives, serves as the commander in chief of the world’s largest army, and takes a decisive role in trade deals and economic policy.

There’s a lot on the line.

The same principle does not apply in Ireland. Our President is not empowered to draft laws. Our President has no real capacity to prevent bills from the Oireachtas becoming law. The President has no jurisdiction in economic policy or trade deals. American presidents have the nuclear launch codes, Irish presidents probably don’t know the code to open the gate to Áras an Uachtaráin.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s essential that we vet the candidates thoroughly and in the public eye. But in Ireland, a format that pits the candidates against one another serves no purpose. There are no policies or initiatives or proposed legislation for them to disagree on. Indeed, if they do disagree on policy, the moderator would be quick to remind them that they will have no say on policy anyway.

So the most they can do is attack each other’s character, or embarrass themselves. Which is fun! But it’s also probably not the best system through which the public can understand what they’re voting for.

At times, it seems like the purpose of Irish presidential debates is just to expose the extent to which the candidates misunderstand the purpose of the office. And, just to be clear, we’re having four of them.

The debates also help differentiate the candidates on a trivial level. For example, we learned that Peter Casey thinks Skype is a very good idea and that none of the candidates would refuse to meet with any other head of state. But tidbits like this don’t require a ‘debate’. Each question was answered individually, one candidate after the other.

We learned nothing about each of their stances on things like shaking hands with footballers or giving speeches at the official openings of schools and museums, even though it’s affairs like this that actually take up much of the presidential diary.

The parameters that the Irish president operates within are crushingly cramped. Once you take up the office, the direct action you can bring to bear on Irish society becomes even less than that of an average citizen. The role is almost purely symbolic. The key is to be nice to diplomats, avoid doing or saying anything humiliating for the country, and not cause a constitutional crisis by doing something you’re not allowed to do.

Last night, for example, Ní Riada was reminded by Claire Byrne that she would need approval from the government to visit Palestine. Her response to that was that “at least [she’d] knock on the door”.

As for those who would serve as a ‘watchdog’ keeping an eye on the government, it should be noted that Presidential communications, messages or addresses both to the Oireachtas and to the public must be approved by the government. Again, Ireland’s “separation of powers” is far more nominal than what exists in the United States.

If you think that the Irish president should be speaking up about the government’s behaviour, you simply don’t understand what the president is allowed to do. It’s a nice idea, but if you’re looking for a forceful people’s champion, the last place you should want to put that person is in Áras an Uachtaráin.

Presidential debates

Think about it. The fact is that if presenting the Gaisce to transition years is in your top five jobs… your direct influence on quality of life in Ireland is pretty minimal.

You don’t learn about who’s a good person by watching them in a televised debate.

The conflict inherent to ‘debates’ pretty much ensures that events like last night will drag in ratings higher than your average for shows like Claire Byrne Live or Prime Time. But a cursory glance at social media will show you that the Irish presidency remains misunderstood beyond belief.

By painting the presidency as anything more than a don’t-break-anything dignitary role, as something worthy of four whole one-hour debates, we’re only complicating the matter even further.

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