In his address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on the 18th April last to celebrate the Irish Presidency President Michael D Higgins received a standing ovation from mostly left-wing MEPs for his critique of the austerity approach of European leaders to the Economic crisis. Is this the sign of a President who is prepared to step outside the normal conventions in order to protect those sections of society who have been so harshly disadvantaged by Government economic measures?
He called the response of EU leaders to the economic crisis “disparate, sometimes delayed, not equal to the urgency of the task and showing insufficient solidarity”. In the speech, the President also warned against an “unconscious drift” towards racism, social breakdown and loss of democratic accountability during the economic crisis.
When Michael D. Higgins became Ireland’s ninth President on 11 November 2011, his inauguration address set out the theme for his term of office:
“My Presidency will be a Presidency of transformation, recognising and building on the many positive initiatives already under way in communities, in the economy, and in individual and collective efforts throughout our land. It will be a Presidency that celebrates all of our possibilities. It will seek to be of assistance and encouragement to investment and job creation, to innovation and original thinking – a Presidency of ideas – recognising and open to new paradigms of thought and action.”
A Political Figurehead?
In their Article for “Irish Political Studies” titled “The President of Ireland : A Constitutional and Political Figurehead?” published in December 2012, the writers John Coakley and Kevin Rafter stated :
“These sentiments are undoubtedly non-political in the narrow sense of the word, but they point to a vision of the presidency that has at its core a concept of social leadership. This may well help to provide a functional definition of the presidential role that isolates it from the political world, thus minimising the risk of a clash with the government; but politics may be understood more widely than this, and the boundary between political and non-political matters is a porous one. It remains to be seen how far the current President of Ireland and his successors will extend the domains of perceived legitimate presidential involvement, especially in times of rapid socio-economic change and political institutional evolution.”
Prepared to Criticize
Since his inauguration President Higgins has, it is respectfully submitted, taken the safe path. In his Strasbourg presentation however he has shown himself prepared to criticize institutional policies where those policies cause division in society.
If the President steps outside the boundaries of convention the Government is entitled under the Constitution to seek to have him impeached. It would be a brave Government that would seek to impeach a President for his efforts to protect those members of society who are less well off. One hopes that this will not be a unique event in Mr Higgins` Presidency but that we can look forward to a more robust leadership.