Sputnik: Media reports suggest that the president’s role in the republic is largely ceremonial. Do you agree with that? If that’s the case, how important are these elections really?
Donnacha O'Beachain: Well, yes, the president of Ireland has very limited powers. It’s largely a ceremonial, a symbolic role, and they don’t get involved in day-to-day politics. Their most significant power, in fact, is the ability to refer pieces of legislation to the Supreme Court to test the constitutionality, but that’s been very rarely used.
I think it’s best perhaps to think of the Irish presidency as a directly elected monarch, with term limits. The fact that they are directly elected means that they are mandated to speak for the nation and to represent it abroad, even if all their foreign trips and all their speeches must first be approved by the government. So, it’s an important role, symbolically, but, as you suggest, it’s not one that has a lot of direct power.
Sputnik: Currently, the current president, incumbent Michael D. Higgins, is one of the first to actually try to be reelected after a 7-year term. What’s the significance of that? Is that a big deal?
Donnacha O'Beachain: It is, because it’s uncharted territory for most people. Certainly, most people won’t remember the last time that a sitting president was challenged. There’s a whole variety of reasons for that: most of the parties in the past have either, you know, re-nominated the same president, or presidents have stepped down after one term.
Michael D. is very likely to be reelected on the first count: he is overwhelmingly popular, even among, for example, Sinn Fein voters. Sinn Fein is the only party to put forward a candidate. And opinion polls suggest that even a majority of their supporters are in favor of the reelection of the incumbent Michael D. Higgins, and partly that’s because, for the reasons that we’ve outlined earlier, that the president doesn’t get involved in day-to-day politics. They are above politics, and therefore they are not involved in controversy. And very little kind of unpopularity that would associate itself with normal government politics attaches itself to the presidency.
Michael D. Higgins as an individual – he is a poet, he is an academic, he is a long-time politician – he is a man of great intellectual charm, and he is remarkably well in setting the tone for the presidency. […] It’s very hard for the five challengers. Really, what can they offer? They can offer very little in terms of policy, because the president doesn’t have the power to implement policy; so it’s largely reduced to personality. It’s really hard to imagine anyone being president until they hold that office. That gives the incumbent Micheal D. Higgins a huge advantage.
Views and opinions expressed in this article are those of Donnacha O'Beachain and do not necessarily reflect Sputnik's position.