Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Higgins's grand ambitions hindered from the start

President Michael D Higgins starts out on a difficult road. He does so with considerable confidence and the inspiring use of language. He has put an optimistic shape on his own future and offered it to the country to follow as best they can. Some will do so with hope in their hearts. Others will be more sceptical.

He has rightly confined himself to the future since the past hardly bears consideration. In the immediate past, we have come through the worst presidential campaign the country has ever seen. Behind a patina of almost ludicrous politeness during the candidates' debates there lurked dishonesty, misrepresentation, concealment and a diet of platitudes.

Comforting though it may be to have finished with this and to have ended up with a candidate who has determination and talent, it would be foolish to forget too easily or too swiftly what we have been through because it bears on what faces us now.

Mr Higgins made a strong point as part of his inauguration speech about "We Irish" that we are "creative, resourceful, talented and warm", with a common sense of decency and justice. The truth is rather different. Some are creative and resourceful; some are talented, even warm. And there is a measure of common decency and justice. But the people of this country are deeply demoralised and also deeply divided. Many are impoverished, facing high levels of unemployment, much of it long-term; potential loss of ownership of their homes; emigration; and the much deeper threat of our currency and our profitable future in Europe.

Mr Higgins has taken a brave position in the face of these and many other troubles by setting them aside and looking toward the future as a president for all the people. This primary objective is written into the oath of office in which every president has made the same declaration that he or she "will dedicate my abilities to the service and welfare of the people of Ireland".

In his inaugural speech he added to this a much larger claim, that he had received "a strong mandate" from the Irish people. This is not true. No mandate is ever given by the people to any president. The Constitution not only does not allow for it; the Constitution specifically rules it out. Nor was it sought by Mr Higgins in his campaign. None of the candidates sought a presidential mandate. They all put forward ideas and aspirations, Mr Higgins among them, but these were aspirations and promises, often quite vague and generalised and completely unsupported by any conditions surrounding the office.

A mandate is a judicial or legal command, in our democracy achieved -- as is the case in Dail and Senate elections -- by the specific undertakings of what powers will be used and how they will be used to achieve change in administration and legislation in the country. A mandate is given for the purpose of government.

No such powers exist for the president of Ireland. It was not part of the election. It is not part of the terms for office. It just isn't there at all.

Ireland freely and ineptly gave increasingly large mandates to Europe and outside the sovereignty of the State. That was a really stupid transfer of power, which we are living to regret. But Ireland never once attempted to do anything similar for the president of the country. The terms under which Mr Higgins operates are precisely those that have controlled and confined the other eight presidents in our history; and whatever else they do, they do not bestow powers different from those enjoyed by Eamon de Valera or Sean T O'Kelly.

Two recent presidents have handled their role differently and have pushed wider what might be called the "envelope of power", but their achievement has been modest, more a product of their wise and skilful use of their own personalities rather than as a result of claiming any mandate.

During the course of the presidential election, a good deal of displeasure was expressed about the consistent failure of successive governments to make more realistic the performance of the role. Unsurprisingly, nothing had been done for more than 70 years, leaving the ambitious new President even more restricted due to his mistaken belief that he has a mandate.

He is under the comparatively strict control of the Government, and one has to presume -- it is not clearly evident -- that a structure of protocol will guide him from now on lest he should begin on a programme involving constitutional reform, the achievement of a more ethical society and a more inclusive society, reaching out to the Irish diaspora, taking up the cause of exports and trade, even altering his own historic position on issues where he has, in the past, been at odds with large sections of the Irish people. Essentially, not just in the light of the aspirations behind the role with which the new president of our country has invested himself at the outset of his time in office, but also in the light of the not inconsiderable achievements and changes that have manifested themselves under the two previous presidents, the Government and the Taoiseach should play some more significant part than has been done in the past on the level of control and guidance to be exercised under the Constitution.

All the powers Mr Higgins has indicated an interest in, all the objectives he has outlined, can be exercised "only on the advice of the Government", save where it is otherwise empowered.

This includes, most significantly of all, the Council of State, which is advisory; and in that role subject to the restrictions already mentioned that surround the President. He has the appointment of up to seven members additional to those who are there ex officio and are drawn from former and present senior government members and heads of the judiciary, together with the chairpersons of Dail and Senate.

It would be churlish not to wish Mr Higgins the best of luck with his stated objectives. Many are worthwhile and he has been widely praised since his election.

A good Council of State, working with the Government in a close and harmonious way, and supporting a programme not unlike that pursued by Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, could achieve good objectives in keeping with the best that Mr Higgins can offer. But he has overstated what he can do at the outset and everyone should recognise this.

We remain in dire circumstances, without effective sovereignty, bewildered over what we can or should do about the most vital crisis facing us, over our currency, our livelihoods and our position in Europe, and we know that the best contribution possible for the new President has to be modest since he does not have the power to deliver more than a small percentage of what he has offered. We all need to face that reality.