Opinion: the Irish presidency has been shaped by competing visions of the office often articulated in electoral contests

How should Michael D. Higgins, the President of Ireland, respond to the challenge of an election is a question almost without precedent. If, as now seems probable, one or more candidates enter the electoral fray, 2018 will only be the second occasion when a sitting President has faced a contest. However, President Higgins appears unlikely to follow Éamon de Valera’s lead and remain aloof as the latter did in 1966. But then how exactly should he campaign? 

Past presidential elections can be explored for examples of not only how the president or the media have acted, but also how political parties campaigned. As for those individuals who do secure nominations to enter a contest in 2018, optimism and perhaps some inspiration can be found in the strategies used by past candidates. What is clear is the existence or otherwise of electoral contests has been critical to how the Irish presidency has evolved.

Presidents and presidential elections can be divided into distinct phases. The four contests from 1945 to 1973 were dominated by Fianna Fáil, while the three from 1990 to 2011 saw increased competition between parties and independents. This reflects the evolution of the office with the early presidents Douglas Hyde, Seán T. O’Kelly and Eamon de Valera adopting a cautious approach while a more ‘activist’ role was assumed in the 1970s by Erskine Childers and Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh. Patrick Hillery reverted to a more conservative view of the functions of the president, while Mary Robinson, Mary McAleese and Michael D. Higgins have each adopted a broader vision for their term in Áras an Uachtaráin.

From RTÉ Archives, Morning Ireland reports on the election of Mary Robinson as Ireland's first female president in 1990

According to the Irish Constitution, the President has specific powers, most notably to refer bills to the Supreme Court for judgements on their constitutionality and whether to dissolve the Dáil when the Taoiseach no longer has the support of the majority of the members of the house. However, it is how incumbents have interpreted the duties of the office which have been crucial in informing what is the role of the President.

Critical to how the presidency has been shaped has been the existence of competing visions of the office which have often been stimulated by electoral contests. On the other hand, the absence of elections has invariably led to limited conceptions of the role of the President. Had there been, for example, an electoral contest in 1938, a very different individual could have been chosen to Douglas Hyde, the first incumbent whose outlook for the presidency as one who was non-partisan and ‘above politics’ has informed how each of his successors have approached the office.

From RTÉ Archives, radio clip taken from Douglas Hyde's inauguration as first President of Ireland in 1938

Equally, the early electoral contests established patterns that have been difficult to change. Costs and the difficulty of securing victory given the dominance of the main political parties and especially Fianna Fáil’s strength in both the Oireachtas and local authorities has made it difficult for smaller parties and independents to put forward candidates.

An exception which highlighted the robustness of political exchanges and the extent of the dissatisfaction which then existed with the Fianna Fáil government was the 1945 Presidential election. Having secured the nomination with the support of smaller parties and independents, Patrick McCartan, an independent republican candidate, received over 200,000 votes despite being accused of being unaware of the limited powers of the President and unsuitable to the office.

Would a campaign involve posters or going around the country or merely participating in televised debates?

In 1959, McCartan failed to secure a sufficient number of nominations from local councils. It was not until 1997 that the local council route to enter presidential elections was successfully used by candidates, while smaller parties and independents were not to use their powers again until nominating Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness in 2011.

Other strategies individuals could borrow from earlier elections include the need to have a convincing message which can distinguish one from other candidates. These include Erskine Childers speaking about a more accessible presidency in 1973 or Mary Robinson arguing that she would be "a President with a purpose" in 1990 or Mary McAleese talking of the need to build bridges throughout the island in 1997.

Some of these had been borrowed from the ideas of earlier presidents: Childers certainly adapted the themes of Fine Gael’s T. F. O’Higgins who was the first to put forward a different style for the presidency in the 1966 election. Much to the annoyance of Fianna Fáil, O’Higgins challenged the incumbent President, Éamon de Valera. In contrast to the latter’s well-known priorities of unification and the Irish language, O’Higgins ran a vigorous campaign focused on the future and youth.

From RTÉ Archives, RTÉ News' footage on President, Éamon de Valera's second inauguration

Despite de Valera’s decision not to campaign, he had a number of advantages as the incumbent. Similar to Michael D. Higgins, de Valera had been central to the 1916 commemorations, albeit in 1966 with a much more celebratory tone. Moreover, the jubilee celebrations of the 1916 Rising had occurred shortly in advance of the election and resulted in abundant coverage of de Valera on television and radio.

In that context, RTÉ’s decision not to cover T. F. O’Higgins campaign was controversial and could even have affected the result especially given that in the end the winning margin was a mere 10,717 votes. The national broadcaster’s need to maintain balance between the candidates remains ever-present, especially following the dramatic closing week of the election in 2011.

Unlike de Valera who was almost blind, which could be viewed as a factor in his decision in 1966 not to campaign, Michael D. Higgins appears to be in better health now than he was in 2011 and seems unlikely to shy away from a contest. But what exactly would this mean? Would a campaign involve posters or going around the country or merely participating in televised debates? Similarly, what should be the attitude of RTÉ, the national broadcaster, given its need to maintain balance between the different candidates?

From RTÉ Archives,RTÉ News report by Martina Fitzgerald on the election of Michael D. Higgins as President of Ireland in 2011

If President Higgins does not campaign and decides to stand on his record in office, the public, RTÉ and other media outlets will hardly accept an absence of scrutiny of each candidate, as was the case in 1966. And yet campaigning contains risks, as the need to be above politics and be presidential remains paramount ever since Douglas Hyde set the tone as the first President.

But the Irish presidency has evolved significantly from Hyde and how the early office holders viewed the constraints of the position. It is now defined by alternative visions for the office and its potential contribution to modern Ireland. Electoral contests have been crucial to this evolution. How the Irish President has acted reflects this change as well as how Ireland itself has been transformed as a country.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ