The Pres­i­dency isn’t about pol­i­tics. It’s about poetry

The Irish Times Magazine - - SOUND OFF -

Here are a few things the Pres­i­dent of Ire­land can­not do: the Pres­i­dent can’t pro­mote busi­ness or end cor­rup­tion or keep im­mi­grants out. The Pres­i­dent can’t change the sta­tus quo.

( The Pres­i­dent is the sta­tus quo.) Tech­ni­cally, the Pres­i­dent’s only job is to pro­tect the Con­sti­tu­tion. None­the­less a fas­ci­nat­ing se­lec­tion of peo­ple seem mad keen to be­come our head of state, most of whom have never be­fore run for elected of­fice. And I mean “fas­ci­nat­ing” in the most judg­men­tal way.

But let’s not be neg­a­tive. You could ar­gue that it’s bril­liant so many dif­fer­ent sorts of peo­ple are po­lit­i­cally en­gaged now. Or the whole thing has turned into a cir­cus. If it’s op­tion num­ber two, then I blame Mary Robin­son. Ac­tu­ally, I blame her for both op­tions. Af­ter all, she was the one who gave the post some sig­nif­i­cance. Be­fore her, Uachtarán na hÉire­ann was the po­lit­i­cal equiv­a­lent of Week­end At Bernie’s, where you’d have some crotch­ety old bloke wav­ing or open­ing things. Some of them were prob­a­bly alive, but it was grand ei­ther way.

The pres­i­dency does come with some lim­ited pow­ers, of course, but no one ex­pected them to be used that much; and they weren’t. Pres­i­dents have re­ferred bills to the Supreme Court just 15 times in the last 78 years.

And let’s not for­get that when then min­is­ter for jus­tice Paddy Done­gan called then pres­i­dent Cearb­hall O’Dalaigh a “thun­der­ing dis­grace” in 1976 – for re­fer­ring a bill – it was the pres­i­dent who re­signed, not Done­gan. Then taoiseach Liam Cos­grave re­fused Done­gan’s res­ig­na­tion of­fer, as­sum­ing that a grov­el­ling apol­ogy would keep the old fella happy. That he thought one of his min­is­ters should be al­lowed to get away with name- call­ing the head of state ( and the supreme com­man­der of the Ir­ish De­fence Forces) vividly demon­strates how the pres­i­dency was re­garded.

But when the first Mary ar­rived in the park, the tone and mean­ing of the pres­i­dency seemed to change. The fact that we’d elected a woman was of course hugely sig­nif­i­cant, but it was far more than that. Here’s the thing: as a lawyer, Robin­son was em­i­nently qual­i­fied for the job. But it wasn’t her le­gal brain that cre­ated the pres­i­den­tial meta­mor­pho­sis. It was be­cause Mary Robin­son is also a bit of a poet.

Specif­i­cally, she un­der­stood the power of sym­bol. The can­dle in the win­dow of the Áras, vis­it­ing the Queen in Lon­don, shak­ing Gerry Adams’ hand, trav­el­ling to So­ma­lia and Rwanda: she in­hab­ited the role of pres­i­dent as a liv­ing metaphor of Ire­land, an Ire­land that was now emerg­ing into moder­nity, that could start to feel good about it­self and per­haps even pro­vide a pos­i­tive ex­am­ple for the rest of the world.

Many Ir­ish ci­ti­zens fell in love with this ver­sion of the pres­i­dent: peo­ple who would never have voted for Mary Robin­son in any other elec­tion.

‘‘ Robin­son in­hab­ited the role of pres­i­dent as a liv­ing metaphor of Ire­land, an Ire­land that was now emerg­ing into moder­nity

She some­how man­aged to move the of­fice past her own bi­og­ra­phy and trans­form it into some­thing po­lit­i­cal but also emo­tional, in the best sense of both those words. It en­gaged the heart and the brain, and this gave it a new power. Yes, it sounds all wimpy and lib­eral, but feel­ings should have a place in pol­i­tics; just as they do in our lives. That’s what the pres­i­dency is about in Ire­land now. And that’s im­por­tant.

In their own ways, the sec­ond Mary and Michael D both fol­lowed this tem­plate. All three have man­aged to oc­ca­sion­ally re­mind us that we have come a long way in this coun­try. Things are bet­ter now, de­spite the many prob­lems still to be ad­dressed; and that this should give us hope that things can get even bet­ter. It’s not the pres­i­dent’s job to tell us how this coun­try should be im­proved, apart from the odd oblique hint.

That’s up to the rest of us.

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