The presidency is largely a ceremonial office, but the President does exercise certain limited powers with absolute discretion. The President's official residence is Áras an Uachtaráin in Dublin. The office was established by the Constitution of Ireland in 1937, and became internationally recognised as head of state in 1949 following the coming into force of the Republic of Ireland Act.
The current president is Mary McAleese, who took office on 11 November 1997. The next president will be Michael D. Higgins, who was elected on 29 October 2011.
The Constitution of Ireland provides for a parliamentary system of government, under which the role of the head of state is largely a ceremonial one. The President is formally one of three tiers of the Oireachtas (national parliament), which also comprises Dáil Éireann (the lower house) and Seanad Éireann (the Senate or upper house).
Unlike many other republics, executive authority is expressly vested in the Government (cabinet). Thus, the President is not even the nominal chief executive. The Government is obliged, however, to keep the President generally informed on matters of domestic and foreign policy. Most of the functions of the President may only be carried out in accordance with the strict instructions of the Constitution, or the binding 'advice' of the Government. The President does, however, possess certain personal powers that may be exercised at his or her discretion.
The main functions are prescribed by the Constitution:
Appoints the Government
The President appoints the Taoiseach (head of government) and other ministers, and accepts their resignations. The Taoiseach is appointed upon the nomination of the Dáil, and the remainder of the cabinet upon the nomination of the Taoiseach and approval of the Dáil. Ministers are dismissed on the advice of the Taoiseach and the Taoiseach must, unless there is a dissolution of the Dáil, resign upon losing the confidence of the house.
Appoints the judiciary
The President appoints the judges to all Courts of the Republic of Ireland, on the advice of the Government.
Convenes and dissolves the Dáil
This power is exercised on the advice of the Taoiseach; government or Dáil approval is not needed. The President may only refuse a dissolution when a Taoiseach has lost the confidence of the Dáil.
Signs bills into law
The President cannot veto a bill that the Dáil and the Seanad have adopted. However, he/she may refer it to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality. If the Supreme Court upholds the bill, the President must sign it however if it is found to be repugnant to the constitution, the President will decline to give assent.
Represents the state in foreign affairs
This power is exercised only on the advice of the Government. The President accredits ambassadors and receives the letters of credence of foreign diplomats. Ministers sign international treaties in the President's name. This role was not exercised by the President prior to the Republic of Ireland Act 1948
Supreme commander of the Defence Forces
This role is somewhat similar in statute to that of a commander-in-chief. An officer's commission is signed and sealed by the President. This is a nominal position, the powers of which are exercised on the advice of the Government. (See Minister for Defence.)
Power of pardon
The President, on the advice of the Government, has "the right of pardon and the power to commute or remit punishment". Pardon, for miscarriages of justice, has applied rarely: Thomas Quinn in 1940, Brady in 1943, and Nicky Kelly in 1992. The current procedure is specified by Section 7 of the Criminal Procedure Act, 1993. There were plans in 2005 for paramilitary "on the runs" to receive pardons as part of the Northern Ireland peace process, to supplement the 1998 early release of serving prisoners after the Good Friday Agreement. This was controversial and was soon abandoned along with similar British proposals.Power of commutation and remittance are not restricted to the President, though this was the case for death sentences handed down prior to the abolition of capital punishment.
Other functions specified by statute or otherwise include:
- The President is ex officio President of the Irish Red Cross Society.
- The President appoints, on the advice of the Government, the Senior Professors and chairman of the council of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies; the governor of the Central Bank of Ireland; the members of the Irish Financial Services Appeals Tribunal; the Ombudsman; and the members of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission.
- The President appoints one trustee to the Chester Beatty Library. This was specified in Chester Beatty's will and given effect by a 1968 Act of the Oireachtas.
- The President is the patron of Gaisce – The President's Award, established by trust deed in 1985.
- The President may not leave the state without the consent of the Government.
- Every formal address or message "to the nation" or to either or both Houses of the Oireachtas must have prior approval of the Government. Other than on these two (quite rare) occasions there is no limitation on the President's right to speak. While earlier presidents were exceptionally cautious in delivering speeches and on almost every occasion submitted them for vetting, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese have made much more use of their right to speak without government approval, with Mary McAleese doing many live radio and television interviews. Nonetheless, by convention Presidents refrain from direct criticism of the government.
Every formal address or message "to the nation" or to either or both Houses of the Oireachtas must have prior approval of the Government. Other than on these two (quite rare) occasions there is no limitation on the President's right to speak. While earlier presidents were exceptionally cautious in delivering speeches and on almost every occasion submitted them for vetting, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese have made much more use of their right to speak without government approval, with Mary McAleese doing many live radio and television interviews. Nonetheless, by convention Presidents refrain from direct criticism of the government.
The Taoiseach is required to resign if he has "ceased to retain the support of a majority" of the Dáil, unless he asks the President to dissolve the Dáil. The President has the right to refuse such a request, in which case the Taoiseach must resign immediately. This power has never been invoked. However, the necessary circumstances existed in 1944, 1982 and 1994. The apparent discrepancy between the Irish and English versions of the Constitution has discouraged Presidents from contemplating the use of the power. On the three occasions when the necessary circumstances existed, presidents have adopted an ultra-strict application of a policy of non-contact with the opposition. The most notable instance of this was in January 1982, when Patrick Hillery instructed an aide, Captain Anthony Barber, to ensure that no telephone calls from the opposition were to be passed on to him. (Nevertheless three opposition figures, including Fianna Fáil leader Charles Haughey, demanded to be put through to Hillery, with Haughey threatening to end Barber's career if the calls weren't put through. Hillery, as Supreme Commander of the Defence Forces, recorded the threat in Barber's file and recorded that Barber had been acting on his instructions in refusing the call). Even without this consideration, refusing such a request would arguably create a constitutional crisis, as it is considered a fairly strong constitutional convention that the head of state always grants a parliamentary dissolution. Having said this, Mary Robinson, who had been a distinguished constitutional lawyer, has stated that she would have refused Albert Reynolds a dissolution if he had asked for one after his coalition government fell apart in 1994.
If requested to do so by a petition signed by a majority of the membership of the Seanad, and one-third of the membership of the Dáil, the President may, after consultation with the Council of State, decline to sign into law a bill (other than a bill to amend the constitution) he/she considers to be of great "national importance" until it has been approved by either the people in an ordinary referendum or the Dáil reassembling after a general election, held within eight months. This power has never been used, and no such petition has been invoked. Of the 60 Senators, 11 are nominated by the Taoiseach, so there is rarely a majority opposed to a government bill.
The President may appoint up to seven members of the Council of State, and remove or replace such appointed members. (See list of presidential appointees to the Council of State.) The following powers all require prior consultation with the Council of State, although the President need not take its advice:
Referral of bills to the Supreme Court
The President may refer a bill, in whole or part, to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality. If the Supreme Court finds any referred part unconstitutional, the entire bill falls. This power may not be applied to a money bill, a bill to amend the Constitution, or an urgent bill the time for the consideration of which has been abridged in the Seanad. This is the most widely used reserve power; a full list is at Council of State (Ireland)#Referring of bills. In a 1982 judgment delivered under such a referral, Chief Justice Tom O'Higgins bemoaned the crude strictures of the prescribed process; especially the fact that, if the court finds that a bill does not violate the Constitution, this judgment can never subsequently be challenged.
Abridgement of the time for bills in the Seanad
The President may, at the request of the Dáil, impose a time-limit on the period during which the Seanad may consider a bill. The effect of this power is to restrict the power of the Seanad to delay a bill that the Government considers urgent.
Appointment of a Committee of Privileges
The President may, if requested to do so by the Seanad, establish a Committee of Privileges to solve a dispute between the two Houses of the Oireachtas as to whether or not a bill is a money bill.
Address to the Oireachtas
The President may address, or send a message to, either or both Houses of the Oireachtas. Four such addresses have been made: one by de Valera, twice by Robinson, and once by McAleese (details at Council of State (Ireland)#Addresses to the Oireachtas). The approval of the government is needed for the message; in practice, the entire text is submitted.
Address to the Nation
The President may "address a message to the Nation" subject to the same conditions as an address to the Oireachtas. This power has never been used. Commonplace messages, such as Christmas greetings, are not considered to qualify.
Convention of meetings of the Oireachtas
The President may convene a meeting of either or both Houses of the Oireachtas. This power would allow the President to step in if, in extraordinary circumstances, the ordinary procedures for convening the houses had broken down.
The President is directly elected by secret ballot using the Alternative Vote, the single-winner analogue of the Single Transferable Vote. Under the Presidential Elections Act, 1993 a candidate's election formally takes place in the form of a 'declaration' by the returning officer. Where more than one candidate is nominated, the election is 'adjourned' so that a ballot can take place, allowing the electors to choose between candidates. A Presidential election is held in time for the winner to take office the day after the end of the incumbent's seven-year term. In the event of premature vacancy, an election must be held within sixty days.
Only resident Irish citizens aged eighteen or more may vote; a 1983 bill to extend the right to resident British citizens was ruled unconstitutional.
Presidents can serve a maximum of two terms, consecutive or otherwise.
Candidates must be Irish citizens aged 35 or more They must be nominated by one of the following:
- At least 20 members of the Oireachtas; (there are 226 members)
- At least four county or city councils (there are 34 councils)
- Themselves (in the case of incumbent or former presidents who have served one term).
The most recent presidential election was held on 27 October 2011.
The President has no vice president. In the event of a premature vacancy a successor must be elected within sixty days. In a vacancy or where the President is unavailable, the duties and functions of the office are carried out by a Presidential Commission, consisting of the Chief Justice, the Ceann Comhairle (speaker) of the Dáil, and the Cathaoirleach (chairperson) of the Seanad. Routine functions, such as signing uncontentious bills into law, have often been fulfilled by the Presidential Commission when the President is abroad on a state visit. The government's power to prevent the President leaving the state is relevant in aligning the diplomatic and legislative calendars.
Technically each president's term of office expires at midnight on the day before the new president's inauguration. Therefore, between midnight and the inauguration the following day the presidential duties and functions are carried out by the Presidential Commission. The constitution also empowers the Council of State, acting by a majority of its members, to "make such provision as to them may seem meet" for the exercise of the duties of the president in any contingency the constitution does not foresee. The Council of State can therefore be considered the third in the line of succession. However, to date, it has never been necessary for the council to take up this role.
Vacancies in the presidency have occurred three times: on the death of Erskine Hamilton Childers in 1974, and on the resignations of Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh in 1976 and Mary Robinson in 1997.
The official residence of the President is Áras an Uachtaráin, located in the Phoenix Park in Dublin. The ninety-two room building formerly served as the 'out-of-season' residence of the Irish Lord Lieutenant and the residence of two of the three Irish Governors-General: Tim Healy and James McNeill. The President is normally referred to as 'President' or 'Uachtarán', rather than 'Mr/Madam President' or similar forms. (Note that A hUachtaráin (vocative case) would be the correct address in Irish.) The style used is normally His Excellency/Her Excellency (Irish: A Shoilse/A Soilse); sometimes people may orally address the President as 'Your Excellency' (Irish: A Shoilse [ə 'həʎʃ̪ʲə]), or simply 'President' (Irish: A Uachtaráin [ə 'uːəxt̪ˠəɾaːn̥]). The Presidential Salute is taken from the National Anthem, "Amhrán na bhFiann". It consists of the first four bars followed by the last five, without lyrics.
Under the Constitution, in assuming office the President must subscribe to a formal declaration, made publicly and in the presence of members of both Houses of the Oireachtas, judges of the Supreme Court and the High Court, and other "public personages". The inauguration of the President takes place in St Patrick's Hall in Dublin Castle. The declaration is specified in Article 12.8; in English it is:
In the presence of Almighty God I do solemnly and sincerely promise and declare that I will maintain the Constitution of Ireland and uphold its laws, that I will fulfil my duties faithfully and conscientiously in accordance with the Constitution and the law, and that I will dedicate my abilities to the service and the welfare of the people of Ireland. May God direct and sustain me.To date every President has subscribed to the declaration in Irish. In 1993, the United Nations Human Rights Committee expressed concern that, because of its religious language, the declaration amounts to a religious test for office. The Oireachtas Committee in 1998 recommended that the religious references be made optional.
The President can be removed from office in two ways, neither of which has ever been invoked. The Supreme Court, in a sitting of at least five judges, may find the President "permanently incapacitated", while the Oireachtas may remove the President for "stated misbehaviour". Either house of the Oireachtas may instigate the latter process by passing an impeachment resolution, provided at least thirty members move it and at least two thirds support it. The other house will then either investigate the stated charges or commission a body to do so; following which at least two thirds of members must agree both that the President is guilty and that the charges warrant removal.
As head of state of Ireland, the President receives the highest level of protection in the land. The Áras is protected by armed guards at all times and is encircled by security fencing. At all times the President travels with an armed security detail which is provided by the SDU (Special Detective Unit - an elite wing of the Irish police force). The Presidential limousine is a Mercedes-Benz S-Class LWB. The Presidential Limousine is always navy blue and carries the Presidential standard on the left front wing and the tricolour on the right front wing. When traveling the Presidential limousine is always accompanied by support cars (normally BMW 5 series driven by members of the SDU) and several Garda motorcycle outriders which form a protective convoy around the car. The Presidential State Car is a 1947 Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith landaulette, which is used for ceremonial occasions. The President also has the full use of all Irish Air Corps aircraft at his/her disposal if so needed.
The office of President was established in 1937, in part as a replacement for the office of Governor-General that existed during the 1922–37 Irish Free State. The seven year term of office of the President was inspired by that of the presidents of Weimar Germany. At the time the office was established critics warned that the post might lead to the emergence of a dictatorship. However, these fears were not borne out as successive Presidents played a limited, largely apolitical role in national affairs.
During the period of 1937 to 1949, it was unclear whether the Irish head of state was actually the President of Ireland or George VI, the King of Ireland. This period of confusion ended in 1949 when the state was declared to be a republic. The 1937 constitution did not mention the king; but nor did it state that the President was head of state, saying rather that the President "shall take precedence over all other persons in the State". The President exercised some powers that could be exercised by heads of state but which could also be exercised by governors or governors-general, such as appointing the Government and promulgating the law. However, in 1936 George VI had been declared "King of Ireland" and, under the External Relations Act of the same year, it was this king who represented the state in its foreign affairs. Treaties, therefore, were signed in the name of the 'King of Ireland', who also accredited ambassadors and received the letters of credence of foreign diplomats. Representing a state abroad is seen by many scholars as the key characteristic of a head of state. This role meant, in any case, that George VI was the Irish head of state in the eyes of foreign nations. The Republic of Ireland Act 1948, which came into force in April 1949, proclaimed a republic and transferred the role of representing the state abroad from George VI to the President. No change was made to the constitution.
After the inaugural presidency of Douglas Hyde, who was an interparty nominee for the office, the nominees of the Fianna Fáil political party won every presidential election until 1990. The party traditionally used the nomination as a reward for its most senior and prominent members, such as party founder and longtime Taoiseach Éamon de Valera and European Commissioner Patrick Hillery. Most of its occupants to that time followed Hyde's precedent-setting conception of the presidency as a conservative, low-key institution that used its ceremonial prestige and few discretionary powers sparingly. In fact, the presidency was such a quiet position that Irish politicians sought to avoid contested presidential elections as often as possible, feeling that the attention such elections would bring to the office was an unnecessary distraction, and office-seekers facing economic austerity would often suggest the elimination of the office as a money-saving measure.
Despite the historical meekness of the presidency, however, it has been at the center of some high-profile controversies. In particular, the fifth President, Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, faced a contentious dispute with the government in 1976 over the signing of a bill declaring a state of emergency, which ended in Ó Dálaigh's resignation. His successor, Patrick Hillery, was also involved in a controversy in 1982, when then Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald requested a dissolution of the Dáil Éireann. Hillery was bombarded with phone calls from opposition members urging him to refuse the request, an action that Hillery saw as highly inappropriate interference with the President's constitutional role and resisted the political pressure.
The presidency began to be transformed in the 1990s. Hillery's conduct regarding the dissolution affair in 1982 came to light in 1990, imbuing the office with a new sense of dignity and stability. However, it was Hillery's successor, seventh President Mary Robinson, who ultimately revolutionized the presidency. The winner of an upset victory in the highly controversial election of 1990, Robinson was the Labour nominee, the first President to defeat Fianna Fáil in an election and the first female President. Upon election, however, Robinson took steps to de-politicize the office. She also sought to widen the scope of the presidency, developing new economic, political and cultural links between the state and other countries and cultures, especially those of the Irish diaspora. Robinson used the prestige of the office to activist ends, placing emphasis during her presidency on the needs of developing countries, linking the history of the Great Irish Famine to today's nutrition, poverty and policy issues, attempting to create a bridge of partnership between developed and developing countries.
The text of the Constitution of Ireland, as originally enacted in 1937, made reference in its controversial Articles 2 and 3 to two geopolitical entities: a thirty-two county 'national territory' (i.e., the island of Ireland), and a twenty-six county 'state' formerly known as the Irish Free State. The implication behind the title 'President of Ireland' was that the President would function as the head of all Ireland. However, this implication was challenged by the Ulster Unionists and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland which was the state internationally acknowledged as having jurisdiction over Northern Ireland. Articles 2 and 3 were substantially amended in consequence of the 1998 Belfast Agreement.
Ireland in turn challenged the proclamation in the United Kingdom of Queen Elizabeth II in 1952 as '[Queen] of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland'. The Irish government refused to attend royal functions as a result; for example, Patrick Hillery declined on Government advice to attend the wedding of the Prince of Wales to Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, to which he had been invited by Queen Elizabeth, just as Seán T. O'Kelly had declined on government advice to attend the 1953 Coronation Garden Party at the British Embassy in Dublin. Britain in turn insisted on referring to the President as 'President of the Republic of Ireland' or 'President of the Irish Republic'. Letters of Credence from Queen Elizabeth, on the British government's advice, appointing United Kingdom ambassadors to Ireland were not addressed to the 'President of Ireland' but to the President personally (for example: 'President Hillery').
The naming dispute and consequent avoidance of contact at head of state level has gradually thawed since 1990. President Robinson (1990–97) chose unilaterally to break the taboo by regularly visiting the United Kingdom for public functions, frequently in connection with Anglo-Irish Relations or to visit the Irish emigrant community in Great Britain. In another breaking of precedent, she accepted an invitation to Buckingham Palace by Queen Elizabeth II. Palace accreditation supplied to journalists referred to the "visit of the President of Ireland".
Between 1990 and 2010, both Robinson and her successor President McAleese (1997– ) visited the Palace on numerous occasions, while senior royals - the Prince of Wales, Prince Andrew, Duke of York, Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh all visited both Presidents of Ireland at he Áras an Uachtaráin. The Presidents attended functions with the Princess Royal. President Robinson jointly hosted a reception with the Queen at St. James's Palace, London, in 1995, to commemorate the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of the Queen's Colleges in 1845 (the Quen's Colleges are now known as Queen's University of Belfast, University College Cork and National University of Ireland, Galway). These contacts eventually led to a state visit of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland in 2011.
Though the President's title implicitly asserted authority in Northern Ireland, in reality the Irish President needed government permission to visit there. (The Constitution of Ireland in Article 3 explicitly stated that "[p]ending the re-integration of the national territory" the authority of the Irish state did not extend to Northern Ireland. Presidents prior to the presidency of Mary Robinson were regularly refused permission by the Irish government to visit Northern Ireland.)
However, since the 1990s and in particular since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the president has regularly visited Northern Ireland. President McAleese, who is herself the first President of Ireland to have been born in Northern Ireland, continued on from President Robinson in this regard. In a sign of the warmth of modern British-Irish relations, she has even been warmly welcomed by most leading unionists. At the funeral for a child murdered by the Real IRA in Omagh she symbolically walked up the main aisle of the church hand-in-hand with the Ulster Unionist Party leader and then First Minister of Northern Ireland, David Trimble, MP. But in other instances, Mary McAleese has been criticised for certain comments, such as a reference to the way in which Protestant children in Northern Ireland had been brought up to hate Catholics just as German children had been encouraged to hate Jews under the Nazi regime, on 27 January 2005, following her attendance at the ceremony commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp. These remarks caused outrage among Northern Ireland's unionist politicians, and McAleese later apologised and conceded that her statement had been unbalanced. Despite the changes to Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution as part of the Good Friday Agreement the title of the office remains the "President of Ireland", as the Irish Constitution stipulates that the state's official name is simply "Ireland", and that the "Republic of" is merely its description, though there is now little dispute that the Presidency only has jurisdiction over the "Republic of" Ireland. However, she is regarded by many northern nationalists as their President, and calls have been made for voting rights in Presidential elections to be extended to the whole island.
There have been many suggestions for reforming the office of President over the years. In 1996, the Constitutional Review Group recommended that the office of President should remain largely unchanged. However, it suggested that the Constitution should be amended to explicitly declare the President to be head of state (at present that term does not appear in the text), and that consideration be given to the introduction of a constructive vote of no confidence system in the Dáil, along the lines of that in Germany. If this system were introduced then the power of the President to refuse a Dáil dissolution would be largely redundant and could be taken away. The All-party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution's 1998 Report made similar recommendations.
In an October 2009 poll, concerning support for various potential candidates in the 2011 presidential election conducted by the Sunday Independent, a "significant number" of people were said to feel that the presidency is a waste of money and should be abolished.
The functions of the President were executed by the Presidential Commission from the coming into force of the Constitution on 29 December 1937 until the election of Douglas Hyde in 1938, and during the vacancies of 1974, 1976, and 1997.
Mary Robinson is unusual in having a prominent career after her term of office. She resigned several months before her term was to expire in 1997, in order to become UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, a post she held until 2002. Since the death of Patrick Hillery in 2008, she has been the sole living former President. The 11 years between Robinson's resignation and Hillery's death is the only period in Irish history in which there has been more than one living former President.
Former Presidents who are willing and able to serve are members of the Council of State.