13 May 2011 No Comments by The Northern Standard

A mood seems to be growing in the country that we need to change the office of president to make it more compatible with the times.
Every time a presidential election looms, a debate seems to occur along the lines of opening up the windows of Aras an Uachtaráin to admit the fresh air of modernity.
But a particularly sharpened focus on the nature of the presidential function and the type of individual who should discharge it is likely to colour the build-up to the election of a successor to Mary McAleese in November.
It should, of course, be acknowledged that the nature of the office has been softly revolutionised in recent times.
The imprint left on the Presidency by Mary Robinson and her successor Mrs McAleese has rendered antediluvian the august and austere character of the position that once prevailed, and that flickers occasionally at us in old news footage as an unlamented relict of our more insular and deferential past.
Our current President and her predecessor have invested the position with an accessibility and warmth that is, hopefully, indelible.
Those Aras windows have been well and truly thrown open, and the light within spread across the country to many small communities whose achievements and endeavour have been accorded the imprimatur and encouragement of a presidential visit, or an invitation to the Phoenix Park.
This is a dimension of the presidency that Irish people will not want to see changed.
Mrs Robinson and Mrs McAleese have demonstrated that a position hidebound by formality and diplomatic stricture can still be imbued, by a strong and distinctive personality, with a character that engenders pride and identification in the people.
And yet the feeling is current that we need a new type of personality in the role.
This desire for change has given impetus to the nomination bid being mounted by the Joycean scholar Senator David Norris, and is likely to foster considerable support for the declaration confirmed in the past week by entrepreneur Sean Gallagher, whose strong connections with both Cavan and Monaghan will make the outcome of his campaign to secure a place in the field of considerable interest in our own circulation area.
Both men embody attributes that would certainly give the office a progressive style. Senator Norris has placed the issues of mental health at the core of his campaign to a degree unprecedented by anyone seeking election to major national office, and what he has to say about openness and acceptance in this area will resonate profoundly with people whose lives have been touched by depression or suicide. This is a significant section of our population, and one whose voice has gone largely unheard.
The Senator has some interesting things to say about enterprise, and his desire to conduct a presidency that would celebrate the broad spectrum of Irish culture from folklore to contemporary music is an interesting vision.
His importance as an advocate for gay rights would also make the facilitation of his nomination a significant affirmation of the depth of our national commitment to tolerance and equality.
Sean Gallagher envisages the presidency as a vehicle for the stimulation of meaningful economic recovery, a vanguard in the heralding of a new “age of the entrepreneur”.
A charismatic, committed community man, Mr Gallagher feels he can bring his proven expertise as a youth and disability activist to bear on the functioning of an office whose international dimension he envisages as being integral to the rebuilding of Ireland’s image abroad.
Both men certainly deserve to put themselves before the electorate. However, neither might be afforded the opportunity – and that is the dimension of the presidential process that is surely crying out for reform.
The presidency may still retain a relevance to the functioning of Irish life – but the grip that the political parties have on determining the contestants for the position bears no relation to the modern age, and is an offence to its sensibilities.
Independent presidential candidates need to go through an arduous process to secure a nomination, and require the support of 20 Oireachtas members or four local authorities. Political parties who wish to keep the field reasonably uncluttered in favour of their own nominees can thus easily baulk them.
Senator Norris is already encountering politically motivated obstruction, apparently instigated by Fine Gael, for whom MEPs Mairead McGuinness and Seán Kelly, as well as former leader John Bruton, have been touted as possible runners. And it appears Mr Gallagher’s best hope of entering the fray might be to eschew his independent credentials in favour of the tacit or explicit backing of Fianna Fáil, whose Oireachtas representatives and local councillors are being permitted a free vote on the nomination issue.
The state of affairs would not have to be ideal, just fair, for neither man to be placed in this position. Senator Norris should not be denied candidature by political self-interest, and Mr Gallagher, even though he has significant past associations with the FF party, should not have to compromise his independence in order to participate.
Whatever about the abolition of the Seanad, this situation is screaming out for reform, and the fact that there has been no meaningful attempt made to change the way in which presidential nominations are determined is a serious indictment of the culture of political privilege that still pertains in this country.
Even though they ended up with a Government that was somewhat staid and olde-worlde in its ministerial composition, those who voted in the last General Election delivered a powerful mandate for political change.
It will be a slap in the face for the people if either or both of Senator Norris or Mr Gallagher are unable to place themselves before the voters in November, and the field consists of an assortment of politically aligned old codgers.
If we wish to elect a candidate that will reboot the office of presidency, we should first give the boot to any tired old politician who is seeking the post – and to the unfair and prejudiced system by which the runners in the race are selected.

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